This article was written by BenitoLink intern Juliana Luna
Editor’s note: Two days after this article was published, Southside Elementary School District announced a temporary solution to the transportation challenges. That announcement can be read here.
Kenia Cejas, a mother of three, is feeling troubled. She said she can’t stop worrying about how her children will get to and from school.
Cejas and many other parents at the Hollister Migrant Housing Center are in a desperate situation. There are currently no transportation services available to send more than 30 students to Southside Elementary.
Southside School is 2.1 miles from the Migrant Housing Center, a five-minute car drive or a 40-minute walk. Parents said they are afraid of walking to the school because the road is narrow with curves and no room for pedestrians or cyclists.
Cejas has a car but does not know how to drive, so her daughter has been missing school. She said the outcome was a warning call from the school district informing her to expect a letter to meet the director and talk about the absences.
“Pero nunca me lo enviaron,” Cejas said. “El día siguiente la comencé a mandar porque me dio miedo.” (They never sent it. The next day I started to send her to school because I got scared.”
Under California’s truancy law, parents can be fined up to $1,000 if they don’t send their children to school.
Migrant Housing Center Resident Council President Gina Orozco is also working on a way to get transportation. She has been reaching out to County Express, which provides public transportation in Hollister, and Southside Elementary to find solutions.
In order to take her kids to school, Orozco stopped working as an agricultural supervisor.
Fortunately, Orozco had an empty seat to offer Ceja’s daughter.
They’re not alone. Since March, nearly 30 parents have been meeting to search for an answer to the school transportation needs.
Because work and school schedules don’t align well with each other, mothers are sometimes forced to temporarily stop working to take their children to school.
Since 2016, County Express has provided transportation to school and back home for the Migrant Housing Center.
County Express said a driver shortage is forcing changes to its service. It recently announced it will be temporarily suspending its on-demand service on Aug. 11 because of a “historic driver shortage regionally and nationally, a consequence of the pandemic.”
The end of service occurs on the first day of school.
Veronica Lezama, Transportation Planning Manager with the Council of San Benito County Governments, the regional transportation agency, said County Express’s driver staff of 16 has dwindled to nine. Transportation Planner of San Benito County Local Transportation Authority Regina Valentine said the pandemic caused drivers to retire or seek other work.
“They’re working hard, it’s tough out there,” Valentine said about the remaining drivers. “It’s a nationwide issue, but we are dedicated to work.”
Noting the services provided by County Express changed, Orozco called County Express’s Dial-A-Ride to reserve rides for the kids. However, Orozco was told her requests were not guaranteed to be fulfilled.
Valentine told BenitoLink that since it’s a public general transit service, it isn’t allowed to prioritize school transportation.
“Our Dial-A-Ride is a window. So you’ll get a window of time, of 30 minutes of when you’ll get dropped off and picked up. So we can’t guarantee. It doesn’t work well for students, especially getting to school because we can’t guarantee they’ll arrive before the bell schedule,” said Valentine.
Monica Mancilla said she is worried about securing transportation for her daughter and nephews. Despite having an ongoing job at the cannery, she hasn’t stopped looking for help.
Mancilla said she could remember when she lived at the Migrant Housing Center as a child that there was a yellow bus for pickups and drop offs from the center to Southside. She wondered what happened to the bus.
“It has come to our attention that there’s humble people, and organizations that we aren’t aware of that can help us,” Mancilla said. She added she was hopeful because there are endless connections in the county, and she’s hopeful someone will help.
County Express has been meeting with parents from the Migrant Housing Center. Both Valentine and Lezama have participated in discussing next steps.
“We’ve been meeting with the parents directly and they have our contact information, so we look forward to hearing from them directly if they have any questions,” said Lezama.
‘Feel discriminated against’
However, some parents suspect there are other intentions behind the change of the routes.
“They say it’s because of the driver shortage and we respect that,” said Orozco. “On the contrary, it comes to a point where we feel discriminated against, perhaps by being migrants.”
She said she would call to arrange pick up and the moment she tells the dispatcher where the call is from there’s a sudden change.
“When they hear the word camp of Southside, they turn us down, saying it’s not a route there,” she said. “How can they stop now when two years ago we had the chance for rides for school?”
Lezama, who has lived in the Migrant Housing Center, said she understands these concerns. Growing up, she too walked on the roads to Southside and back to the camp.
“That’s not who we are, we understand how they can see it,” said Lezama.
For summer school, there was a reprieve for parents as Southside rented a van to take the kids to school.
Ariana Barajas is a mother and qualified to be the van driver. She did a background check, gave fingerprints, and was allowed to drive for the duration of summer school. She did two trips each morning, transporting 13 children or more.
“A partir de que empiece la clase ya no hay nada, y ella ya no lo puede manejar,” dijo Orozco. “Dice que cómo vamos a encargar nuestros hijos a una extraña. Pero todos nos conocemos,” (“Once school starts there’s nothing, and she can’t drive the cab anymore,” Orozco said. “She says how are we going to let a stranger care for our kids. But we all know each other.”)
According to the Migrant Center website, there are 67 housing units totaling about 250 residents.
Orozco said,“If there’s a question regarding insurance, we can fix it. We can gather and get the money. It’s desperation getting to us soon, and there is no solution.”
Superintendent John Schilling, who joined Southside Elementary in 2016, told BenitoLink the district has no bus or transportation available, compared to other school districts. He added the district does not have funds to rent or get a hold of a van or bus.
Southside had 224 students enrolled in the 2021-22 school year, according to the California Department of Education.
“Part of the problem is Migrant Education has federal requirements. Migrant funds are for something like field trips, events, but no transportation,” Schilling said.
Asked if the school could extend its after school program, Schilling said in order to do this the district would need to rely on YMCA services and parents would have to pay for it.
County Express has attended 20 meetings with the school and San Benito County Office of Education to find a solution. The last meeting was July 18 and the next one is Aug. 9.
Currently, County Express is working to secure new drivers through CalWorks. The program is training applicants to become drivers for the county. It’s a long process of verification, training and obtaining various licenses.
At this point, the 30 parents at the migrant camp are still waiting for answers.
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