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Chicago School Bus Drivers Have Quit In Droves Over COVID Vaccine Mandate

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Across the country, school districts are desperate for bus drivers. Just days before Chicago Public Schools' first day, scores of bus drivers abruptly quit. The district responded by canceling bus service altogether, even though it's legally mandated to provide it for some students. Sarah Karp of member station WBEZ has more.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: Chelsea Foxwell was eating dinner with a friend on Sunday evening when she saw a message from the school district. She figured that maybe it was reminding her that school started the next day or that one of her son's bus routes would be altered. Instead, the district was canceling bus service altogether for both her kids.

CHELSEA FOXWELL: I guess I didn't really process the word cancellation and the kind of finality of that.

KARP: Foxwell is a single working mother with two sons, both of whom are supposed to be able to take the bus. Chicago Public Schools only provides bus service to about 15,000 students with special needs or those who are enrolled in a gifted or magnet program. One of Foxwell's children is disabled, and the other travels to a gifted program. The schools are 16 miles apart. In the afternoon, it takes her three hours to pick them both up and get home.

FOXWELL: So no, this is not workable for me. And I'm just standing here trying to figure out what the next step would be. I also feel extremely unsupported.

KARP: Chicago public school officials apologized for the cancellation, but say they were forced to do it for 2,100 students. That's because in just one day, 70 bus drivers quit. The reason - according to district officials, these drivers didn't want to get vaccinated, and the district was mandating it. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot backs the school district's decision.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: As a parent, I wouldn't want somebody who was unvaccinated in a bus with particularly young kids and particularly kids who are most vulnerable not being vaccinated.

KARP: After so many bus drivers quit, school district officials say they quickly jumped into action, contacting all the parents of the affected children, offering them a thousand dollars upfront and $500 a month to get their children to school themselves. Mayor Lori Lightfoot also says they're reaching out to Uber or Lyft to see if they can help out. Parent Mary Godinez has a lot of questions about what's going on. Her son with autism is supposed to be able to ride the bus.

MARY GODINEZ: I'm real fired up. I'm disappointed with CPS.

KARP: One complication is that Uber and Lyft are not mandating that their drivers be vaccinated. Godinez says it would cost her more than a thousand dollars a month for her son to take a Lyft to school. She doesn't have a car, so yesterday, her son had to take public transportation to school. He left at 6:45 a.m., but didn't get there till 8:15 - late for school and very agitated.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Karp in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.