For 13-year-old Owen Ames, riding a big yellow bus to Seattle's Eckstein Middle School this year was supposed to mark a new form of independence.
Owen's father Larry Ames left work early last Wednesday to make sure Owen, who is on the autism spectrum, made it home safely on the bus. He saw the vehicle pull away from Eckstein at 4 p.m., and drove home — just 15 blocks away from the school — to await its arrival.
But, Ames said, it didn't show up for two hours.
Though families in Seattle no longer have to worry about a teachers' strike disrupting their lives for the current year, widespread school-bus delays every day since the start of classes have forced some to make alternative transportation plans — often on a moment's notice, or no notice at all, several parents told The Seattle Times.
And when kids are involved, any delay raises more concerns than mere logistics.
"I had this vision he was being dropped off randomly, without the ability to communicate his name or his address," said Ames, who had to rely on Owen's teacher and principal for updates on the route.
"[In the] the last text I sent the principal, just before the bus arrived, I said, 'It’s five after six, should I call 911?' ”
Bus driver shortages at First Student, the company to which the district pays $27 million annually for school bus services, have caused the delays of up to two hours during both mornings and afternoons, according to Seattle Public Schools.
Parents of children signed up for busing are supposed to receive an automatic phone call when a route is delayed — but a "technology glitch" in the district's messaging service on the first day of school meant some didn't get any warning call, according to Pegi McEvoy, the district's assistant superintendent of operations.
Owen's bus was late in the morning, too, according to Ames. He drove Owen to school to make sure he arrived on time to his first day of eighth grade. Wondering why he didn't get any notice, Ames called the district's transportation department to see what was going on. He was on hold for 57 minutes before he decided to hang up.
Jessica Fuller, a parent with two sons attending Robert Eagle Staff Middle School, said she was on hold with the transportation department for two hours on the first day of school and never got through to a human.
"If my kids didn’t have cell phones I wouldn’t have known what was going on," said Fuller. She said her sons' route wasn't on the list of delays the district posted to its website that day. She eventually arranged for her sons to get picked up in a carpool after school. (This week, though, the schedules were regular enough that they began taking the bus again.)
David Graves, whose 6-year-old son, Muir, attends Queen Anne Elementary School (which is temporarily based at the John Marshall building in Ravenna during building renovations) said sometimes the calls have come so late in the day that he and his wife had already made other arrangements.
"I take the city bus to work, my wife works far away, and it’s difficult for us to just drop everything and pick up our son when we were led to believe he was going to be bused every day," said Graves.
The volume of calls — both to and from parents — has slowed both the messaging service and transportation hotline, said McEvoy.
"It’s not as efficient of a communication system as we'd like," she said. "We have a transportation task force that's looking into how we can improve ... communications with our families."
The delays should clear up in the next few weeks, McEvoy added; about 50 new aspiring drivers are in the pipeline. To make sure that one driver is assigned to each of the 400 routes, and that there are enough additional drivers First Student will need to hire around 40 more drivers.
"We had higher turnover during the summer than expected," said Chris Kemper, a spokesperson for First Student.
The union representing the drivers called a strike twice during the 2017-2018 school year, leaving 12,000 students without a ride for a combined eight days.
Teamsters Local 174 spokesperson Jamie Fleming said last week she doesn’t think the strikes have much to do with the slow hiring. If anything, she said, the expanded benefits package and retirement plan would encourage more people to apply. She said the driver shortage is likely caused by a low unemployment rate, and by the fact that drivers work only about six hours a day.
In the meantime, drivers are doubling up on routes, and a few who normally drive students in the Tacoma School District, where teachers are currently on strike, have volunteered to help, said McEvoy.
Fuller's sons were able to start riding the bus this week, but Graves and Ames still don't feel comfortable sending their kids back on just yet.
"I wanna be confident that my son will get to school in a reasonable amount of time," said Ames. Until then, Owen will continue getting rides from his grandmother.