Most special education students take the bus to their school placements, which are often outside of their home school area. You may be putting a child as young as three on one of those stubby conveyances, if special-education preschool is on the agenda. But do you know just where your child is going, who's going along, and what happens when they get there? Here are a dozen questions to ask, both before that first trip and throughout the school year.
1. What time will the bus come?
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You should receive notification about bus arrival times before your child's first school day, but it's not unheard of for that word never to get out. It's also happened that the transportation department never got notified that your child's due for pick-up. Don't be afraid to check on this in advance. Find out from the special education department who you should contact for bus scheduling, and call them ahead of time to make sure your child is on the list, and to find out when you should expect your pick-up time notification. If you don't get it, call again. And again. Be polite, but be persistent. Waiting until the morning of to lodge your complaint means your child will probably miss the bus.
2. Who will be on the bus with my child?Most special-education buses will have a driver and an aide, and you'll usually have the same pair pulling up to your house every day. Get to know these folks. Ask their names, and make sure they know yours. If there's particular information you need them to know -- about a medical problem, say, or a behavioral tactic -- make sure they have that information and be prepared to provide it yourself. Being on friendly terms with the bus personnel, and appreciating that they often have a very difficult job, can buy you and your child some goodwill, and maybe get you some gossip you wouldn't otherwise know about. Let them know you want to hear about any problems, and do the same for the afternoon crew if it's different.
3. How will my child be kept in the seat?
If your child is very small or has low muscle tone, you'll want to make sure an age-appropriate car seat is specified in the IEP,
and call before the first day of school to make sure it will be aboard. For older children, ask about seatbelts or other restraining devices, and if you are not comfortable with them, speak to your IEP team about it -- thinking, of course, specifically in terms of how it is not appropriate
for your child's disability. For kids in wheelchairs, check ahead of time to make sure that the bus personnel have the equipment necessary to get your child on and off the bus and keep the chair restrained onboard. In general, never assume that things will be as you expect -- call the transportation department and verify.
4. What route does the bus take to school?The school your child attends may seem like a straight shot, but if the bus is picking up a full load of kids, it may make quite a lot of detours along the way. Knowing the route can have a number of benefits: You learn where your child's classmates live; you can point out landmarks from the ride when you see them around town; you have a clue where your child might be if the bus is hung up; and you'll know to complain if the route is too circuitous. You may not be able to get official notification of where the bus goes after you, but that's easily remedied -- it's not a bad idea to follow the bus to school on the first day anyway to smooth your child's transition, and what you learn along the way is your own business.
5. What time does the bus get to school?Don't assume that the bus gets to school at the perfect time for a smooth transition into the school day. Some buses may arrive so early that your child has large stretches of unstructured time to kill before class, or so late that morning routines are thrown into disarray. Traffic and weather being what they are, it's impossible to assure punctuality each and every day of the school year. But if the bus's on-schedule arrival time is either very early or reliably late, that can have a real detrimental impact on the school experience of your child and his or her classmates. This is where good relationships with teachers and bus personnel pay off -- ask them what time the bus gets to school. They may be as unhappy with it as you are.
6. Where do kids go when they get off the bus?Ideally, your child would go directly from the bus to the classroom that has been mandated as the most appropriate placement in the school. Ideally, if your child has a one-on-one aide, that individual would be present at that time. But things are very often not so ideal. Your child may go into an auditorium or hallway or outdoor area for the time between bus and bell, and some aides may not come on duty until well after that time. If that will leave your child at risk of mistreatment or behavior problems, ask if other arrangements can be made. There may be a protected spot that children with special needs can go to, someone who can watch your child. Have any arrangements spelled out in the IEP, and make sure they're in place on Day 1.
7. How many buses are my child's classmates on?On the one hand, it's great if the whole class is on one bus, because then there aren't multiple arrivals disrupting the class in the morning, and if weather holds up a bus, nobody misses anything. On the other hand, that means the bus is likely pretty full, and your child's trip will take longer. It's good to know one way or the other, though, because it can help you better discuss the day's doings with your child. You may find that your child memorizes who is on which bus, and what number bus they're on.
8. What time does the bus leave to come home?It's a dirty little secret that children in special education often get dismissed from their classes early, and tucked on their buses well before the bell rings and regular education students are released. That may not sound so bad -- you may want your child navigating school hallways when they're not brimming with students. But do a little calculation and find out how much class time is actually being missed. If it's an inappropriate amount, bring it up with the teacher and the IEP team. Especially if the bus is purposely arriving late in the morning, your child may be deprived of a significant amount of learning time, just for the sake of convenience.
9. What route does the bus take home?It ought to be same route as going, but the order of houses or the particular path taken may differ. Then, too, some children may go to after-school destinations that put them on different buses or change the route. As with the to-school route, it's worth asking about so you always have a general idea of where your child is, and can discuss the things your child passes when you pass them together.
10. What time will the bus return?You'll want to make sure to be home when the bus gets there, or have somebody to greet your child in your place. It might be a good idea to have a neighbor who can meet your child in case of emergency, and to let the bus personnel know that you've made this arrangement. This may be a particular concern if you have other children in different schools who you must pick up at a time close to the bus drop-off hour. Should you have a serious problem being home at the prescribed drop-off time, it doesn't hurt to ask the bus personnel or the transportation department whether a route-reconfiguration is possible. It may also be an option to have your child dropped at a different destination in the afternoon.
11. Who should I call with problems?Your initial notification of your child's busing arrangements will probably include a contact number -- but if your first problem is that you don't get the official notification, you'll need to do some calling around to find the right office. While you're on the phone, also ask about emergency numbers: Who do you call if your child is staying home; if the bus is late in the morning; if your child is not taking the bus home; if the bus is late getting home? Phone numbers that are used for one thing may not be used for another, and you'll want to have all the right ones at your fingertips should there be a problem.
12. Is bus transportation the best choice for my child?Most kids in special education take the bus, and for most parents it's a helpful service. But that doesn't mean you're required to use it, or that it will be the best option for every student. If you do have the ability to drive your child yourself, then think long and hard about the answers to the questions above -- the safety of the ride; the time your child spends on the bus, and in waiting, and out of the classroom; your ability to control your schedule. There are benefits to being on the school premises twice a day that are worth considering, too.