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St. Louis Public School buses are failing to pick up Afghan refugees

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Afghan refugee students are missing school because the St. Louis Public School District doesn’t have enough drivers to fill its bus routes. Without a car, driver’s license or strong grasp of English, many Afghan parents are unable to get their children to school without a bus.

The lack of bus drivers affects students like 11-year-old Marzia. Her family came to the U.S. last year from Jalalabad, Afghanistan. “I like school,” she told St. Louis on the Air, adding that her favorite subject is science.

Marzia’s bus misses its route off Cherokee Street on average three times a week, said Welcome Neighbor volunteer Sue Scott, who’s partnered with the family to provide support. Two other volunteers confirmed they know families with students who have to miss school when the bus doesn’t show.

Scott said missing school harms students’ well-being and ability to gain footing in a new country.

“It's their safe space,” she said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It's a place where there's routine. They see their friends. They're learning English. They're just really thriving.”

Afghan refugees miss school after St. Louis Public School cancels bus routes

While working around missed bus routes is especially difficult for newly arrived immigrants, the issue is not unique to Afghan refugees — the district has around 16,000 students who speak more than 50 languages, and spokesperson George Sells said the canceled bus routes affect nearly every student.

“We want these kids in school,” he said. “We want them stress-free, rested, ready to go. We don't want to cause undue stress on our families. Our families in our district have enough to deal with in life every day without having an added burden put on them.”

The last day of the 2021-22 school year is Thursday, but summer school starts June 6. Families are concerned some kids won’t be able to attend.

Out of more than 260 routes, at least 40 are not covered every day in the district. If drivers call out sick, that number goes up. The issue has led to a drop in attendance among students.

The district has contracted with a new bus company, Missouri Central, for the next school year, but Sells said he isn’t optimistic that much will change. There’s a nationwide bus driver shortage that’s plagued school districts since the pandemic started in 2020 — and it’s only worsened this school year.

“We're short teachers,” he said. “We're short custodians. We're short security officers. None of that is going to change because we changed bus companies. I don't think it's fair to expect Missouri Central to come in with some kind of a magic wand and just fix everything.”

Welcome Neighbor volunteer Sue Scott said there are still dozens of Afghan families who are not partnered with families, which concerns her for students who are potentially missing school.

“I just can't even imagine having started this, how you could navigate some of the things that are so new to you without a partner to help do some of that,” she said.

St. Louis Public School District has offered students a cab company and bus passes to get to school, but without a bus to ride — some will just not show up.

“I understand nobody wants this to be happening,” she said. “It's widespread. But I just think we need to do better by our kids.”

To volunteer with Welcome Neighbor or partner with an Afghan family, sign up here.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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