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Mayor to School Kids: You’re Expendable During a Pandemic

Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Mayor de Blasio said on Monday that he's willing to expose school-bound kids to more road carnage — temporarily, of course — because the Department of Education has not come up with a plan for transporting tens of thousands of children who rely on buses to get to school.

Late on Friday, Education officials released their School Reopening plan, which begs parents to drive their kids to school if they can because buses will not be able to transport all of the 150,000 students who rely on buses to their classes. Under questioning by Streetsblog on Monday, the mayor said that he understood that more driving will likely mean more crashes — some of them fatal — but that he's OK making that choice.

"We are dealing with a pandemic. We don’t have the ability to do what we would normally do with school buses because we have to provide social distancing," de Blasio said during his daily press briefing. "This is something that will go on for a matter of months, but only for a matter of months, and this is a choice we have to make."

Parent and street safety advocates saw the Education Department's planning failure — and the mayor's apparent acquiescence to it — as terribly short-sighted given that driving is already on the rise in the boroughs, and drivers are famously speeding recklessly.

“[The mayor is] basically asking parents, who are dealing with enough stress as it is without transportation challenges, to either buy a car and drive their kids to school — or to trust other drivers to keep their kids safe as they get to school on their own,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo, who is also a parent of two New York City public school students. "That’s not an enviable position to be in. The last thing this city needs is more people driving near schools."

The Department of Education's dilemma, made clear in the reopening plan, stems from a requirement to socially distance kids on school buses because of COVID-19. The result is that as many as a quarter of the kids who last year relied on the bus to get to school may not have a seat come September. That's tens of thousands of kids, potentially requiring tens of thousands of private car trips.

As a result: “The DOE is recommending that families, wherever possible, help reduce the number of students in need of busing by either transporting their children to school on their own, walking, or biking,” the report says.

As with everything else, wealthier families with access to private vehicles will have the option to drive their kids to school, which endangers kids on bikes or on foot. Fewer than half of all city households own a car, according to city data.

"Families with means have options, families without means have much fewer options. The DOE spent millions on consultants to basically tell New Yorkers that they're on their own. That's shameful," said Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger, a former public school teacher who chairs the Council's Education Committee. 

The DOE says it will prioritize providing transportation to kids with specialized learning mandates, students with special needs, and students in temporary housing situations, but others should find their own way. But kids in individualized education programs, known as IEPs, are not the only students who need extra help. Plenty of kids rely on the school community for basic resources such as therapy and food — so access to those services will be more difficult without a car. (And the existing system isn't particularly good, even under normal circumstances, Chalkbeat has reported.)

“Children who live in shelters, they might not have an IEP, but they do need help and we need to help them,” said Treyger. "Kids without IEPs who are also very high need, we have a moral obligation to provide services to them."

The coronavirus is certainly the immediate public health crisis, but road violence is an ongoing, omnipresent public health emergency, added Treyger. Reckless drivers, after all, killed 10 school-age children last year.

One of the victims was 10-year-old Enzo Farachio, who was waiting for the bus to get home from school. Another was 3-year-old Emur Shavkator, who crossing the street in the crosswalk with his mother. Another was 10-year-old Dalerjon Shahobiddinov, who was riding his bike in the crosswalk. And another was 3-year-old Bertin DeJesus, who was also crossing the street inside the crosswalk with his mother.

“It’s frightening, the driving is worse, this is also part of a public safety emergency and I really believe that this needs to be taken much more seriously as we approach September,” said Treyger. “Even before the pandemic in certain schools, folks drive and double or triple park to drop off. That is very dangerous because sometimes cars try to swerve around, and have close calls almost hitting children.”

Treyger says he doesn't trust the city to come up with a plan that keeps kids safe on their way to school, referencing the city's snail-like pace of installing any safe-street infrastructure, and twice so far the city rejecting his requests for traffic-calming measures at two spots in his district — one at Bay 25th Street and Benson Avenue, where the driver killed Shavkator last May.

And at W. 33rd Street and Mermaid Avenue — which is just two blocks away from P.S. 188 — Treyger says he’s also been asking for traffic-calming measures there after multiple reports of speeding drivers, but so far the city has rejected them.

“We need more at that corridor: speed cameras, other traffic calming measures, enforcement. The area is right by a school, I’m very worried about that," he said. "The mayor really has been slow in terms of building up the biking infrastructure. It takes years for the Department of Transportation to complete projects."

Drivers have caused more than 63,000 crashes so far this year citywide, according to the NYPD. Those crashes have injured more than 16,000 drivers, but also more than 5,600 pedestrians and cyclists.

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