When Massachusetts’ largest school districts shifted to fully remote learning for the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the decision left some parents longing for the sight of a yellow school bus rolling down their street.
Parents from Catholic schools in Springfield reached out to MassLive asking what happened to the buses.
The Diocese of Springfield contracts with the Springfield Public Schools to utilize its bus system.
Springfield Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Azell Cavaan told MassLive it comes down to the public-private schools’ contract, which mandates equal busing services for the districts.
So, when students at the public school aren’t using buses because they’re fully remote, the private school students don’t use them either.
The agreement dates back to a law passed in Massachusetts more than 80 years ago. The law guarantees equal transportation for students across the state, which includes the Archdiocese of Boston and Dioceses of Springfield and Worcester where Catholic school students are also in person while their public school peers remain remote.
“Pupils attending private schools of elementary and high school pupils, school grade, except such schools as are operated for profit, in whole or in part, shall be entitled to the same rights and privileges as to transportation to and from school as are provided herein for pupils of public schools,” states the law passed in 1936.
The law has changed some over the years but the basics remain. Massachusetts is one of 29 states, including Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, that provides state aid to non-public schools for transportation.
It costs Massachusetts’ public districts millions annually.
It costs Boston, Worcester and Brockton a combined $3.4 million each year, GBH reported in 2018. In Boston, the public school district spent $1.9 million, so Catholic school students could receive bus service or MBTA passes during the 2017-2018 school year. Worcester Public Schools spent $700,000 to busing non-public school students.
The buses in Springfield aren’t at a complete standstill this year though. Sports teams are still allowed to compete at Springfield Public Schools and will be using the buses for student transportation.
Student athletes will be transported with social distancing and mask requirements in place, which may require more than one bus to transport large groups.
The public school district did provide crossing guards, “which is above and beyond what we needed to do, but it was an attempt to at least work with those schools in some way,” Cavaan said.
Daniel Baillargeon, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Springfield, said the issue is ongoing.
“We have been reviewing the state guidelines and have been in communication with city school officials to discuss this matter,” he said.
Meanwhile, most of the diocese’s schools continue to hold in-person classes, requiring some parents and guardians to find new ways to get their child to school this year.
Parents have told MassLive that it’s an added difficulty for working parents who typically use the bus systems because their hours don’t align with the school’s.
The complexities of the school buses comes at a time when the Archdiocese of Boston and the diocese in Springfield and Worcester have all seen an increase in interest.
Earlier this month Boston reported having 4,000 new students this school year and Springfield reported 700 new students.
Prior to the pandemic, Boston saw “the largest single-year drop in our number of school closures in almost 50 years,” closing 10% of its schools and preparing to close even more.
Much of the renewed interested comes from parents seeking in person learning for their children.
“I don’t think people are going to forget that in this time of need for children, that a large number of public schools just walked away,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston. “And it’s not lost on people that we stepped up.”
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