At least nine cities are receiving assistance, including Chelsea, Lawrence, Lynn, Holyoke and Framingham. Timothy McGuirk, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, declined to say whether more cities would join them or how long the help would last. “We are just focusing on the mission,” he said.
That mission, called “Children First,” has soldiers driving various types of vans to transport children to school, rather than regular buses. That’s because such vans require what is known in Massachusetts as a “7D” license that is relatively easy to obtain. To drive a large school bus, a person needs a commercial driver’s license, which can take weeks.
In Chelsea, schools superintendent Almudena Abeyta initially hesitated to bring in National Guard members as drivers. Chelsea is a majority Latino community with a large immigrant population and Abeyta wondered how parents “would feel if someone in uniform picks up their child for school.” But after conferring with other city officials, she said yes.
When the school year started, Abeyta’s office had been flooded with calls from parents saying their kids were arriving to class late, or took forever to get home, or the bus never came.Some people might say that the situation isn’t an emergency, she said. But “educating children and getting them to school on time, in my opinion, is worth the National Guard coming in.”
On a recent cloudy afternoon, three soldiers arrived in quick succession and parked their vans outside the front entrance of the Morris H. Seigal Clark Avenue School in Chelsea.
Richard Gibbs, 23, was sitting behind the wheel of a red van with a bus monitor at his side. These days he rises by 4 a.m., drives his van from Camp Curtis Guild in Reading, picks up the bus monitor and two rounds of children, then returns by around 9 a.m. — before doing it all again in the afternoon.
A boy arrived carrying a black backpack, a sweatshirt tied around his waist. He bumped fists with Gibbs, then climbed into the back of the van and fastened his seat belt. “They’re great kids,” Gibbs said.
A few vehicles down, Hickman, the former helicopter crew chief, leaned out the driver’s side window to review a list of students with the school’s special education coordinator. He said that the kids have adjusted to their new driver with a minimum of fuss.