SEPTA delays result in unexcused absences, stress and anxiety for Philly students
This story was published on the Billy Penn website on January 29, 2024.
By Zahiya Daniels, Toga Mohamed, Eyitemi Odusola, and Elijah Sanford Abdul-Aziz
Youthcast Media Group®
Astrid Corbett hustled several blocks on foot on a hot day to make it to school on time after a car accident brought traffic, including the public bus they were riding, to a halt.
“By the time I got to school, I was just sweating all over. It was bad,” said Astrid, a sophomore at the Philadelphia High School for Girls.
Following Astrid’s arrival at school, they said they got little sympathy from their teacher.
“She was like, ‘Oh, what took you so long,’ in a really condescending way,” Astrid said. “And then my lateness was definitely not excused, so that was that.”
Astrid’s story is not an isolated one, as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) delays affect many students in Philadelphia. Youthcast Media Group interviewed and surveyed more than 35 students at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, Philadelphia High School for Girls and Julia R. Masterman, and found that more than 90% are late to school due to bus delays and cancellations at least once a month.
Almost two-thirds of students reported that being late or getting tardies negatively impacted their mental health, causing stress and anxiety. While some schools have policies that allow for excuses related to public transit, students say they aren’t clear and many students don’t know how to avoid punishment.
While SEPTA provides some buses for students, the vast majority are left to the mercy of the frequent delays. Students say they would like more communication regarding delays and for SEPTA to be a more safe and reliable way to get to school.
SEPTA delays, student frustrations
Illnesses from the COVID-19 pandemic and resignations due to poor working conditions and other safety issues have contributed to a SEPTA operator shortage and overall recruitment struggles, resulting in daily bus, train and trolley delays. SEPTA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
SEPTA, Philadelphia’s local transit agency, serves over 500,000 riders, including the 65,000 high school students who qualify for the Student Fare Card program to travel to and from school.
For these students, frequent delays can result in late school arrival times which may be unexcused.
“It was freezing. My hands were so numb,” Crystal Huang, a sophomore at Philadelphia High School for Girls, said.
Like many of her classmates, Crystal relies on SEPTA buses to get to school. On this particular day, the buses were consistently at full capacity, leaving the crowd of passengers at the bus stop stuck in the cold.
After she was able to get on a bus, she arrived at school at 8:30, an hour and 20 minutes after leaving her house and 15 minutes after the bell rang.
Even after explaining to the school secretary on a friend’s recommendation, she was not excused.
“I understand and stuff, but I was so frustrated ‘cause it wasn't my fault,” Crystal said. “It was the SEPTA bus' fault because I came here…but the SEPTA bus wasn't there for me. So, what am I supposed to do?”
Some Philadelphia students say teacher responses to tardiness vary, and students like Crystal can find themselves at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control and unaware of who to go to per school policy.
“I realized that whenever there’s a lateness we can go to Ms. Pat but I never really knew about it beforehand because I didn't think that would be excused as a lateness,” Abrarr Mohammed, a junior at George Washington Carver Engineering and Science High School, said.
Abrarr says most students at her school don’t know that latenesses can be excused and that faculty doesn’t talk about it.
Standards for what’s considered an excused absence or tardy vary across states, localities and schools and reflect biases surrounding race and income, according to Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a non-profit aimed at reducing chronic school absences.
“Even if you have clarity, it can be feeling like it's up to the mood of the clerk taking it,” Chang said. “'Oh, you have a note, I'll accept [the absence]; you don't have a note I won't accept it.’ Or, 'I know your mom and I'll accept it.'”
According to Philadelphia High School for Girls administration, school officials are notified when buses and trains are running behind, allowing students to be excused for tardiness due to public transit. Other faculty emphasize student responsibility in planning earlier departures and informing them when such delays occur.
“The bigger picture is that we’re all going to be late to something that’s caused by a SEPTA or traffic delay,” said Walter Myrick, assistant principal at the school.
Myrick said that school policy is that students who are late five times to school receive a morning or afternoon 30-minute reflection.
However, the school’s parent-student handbook states that detention is issued for a student’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th unexcused tardy.
“The school should look at the student’s perspective on why they are being late instead of their own ‘cause we always have so many different reasons why we're late, not just because we don't want to go to school," Tiffany Huang, a sophomore at Philadelphia High School for Girls, said.
In the same YMG survey, 62% of Philadelphia high school students said that being late and the possible consequences affect their mental health negatively.
“It definitely does impact my mental health in a way because it feels like my parents are always rushing me to get out of the house on time, though most of the time, it's really not my fault, it's just the buses' fault and I'm just trying my best,” Astrid said. “It feels like this constant pressure to try to be on time.”
Tasneem Upshur, a 10th-grade student at Philadelphia High School for Girls, said that having little to no control over when a bus arrives is the most frustrating.
“It doesn't matter if you're doing good in school or bad or not, if you're struggling with transportation because they decide to shut down and you're getting in trouble for what happens in SEPTA, I feel like that will ruin anyone's mental health,” she said.
Problem-solving instead of blame or punishment is part of the national approach of Attendance Works, which collaborates with schools, districts, organizations and communities to address the various barriers preventing students from attending class.
“And often when we start with a punitive blaming approach, it doesn't create the kind of relationship where a kid's gonna tell you what's going on,” Chang said. “And it also may push them away.”
SEPTA partners with the School District of Philadelphia to provide transportation for students at some elementary and middle schools, including Baldi Middle School. With seven different routes, these charter buses address some of the safety and attendance concerns with public transit.
The Philadelphia High School for Girls and Central High School are two schools where specialized buses may be useful. With both schools in close proximity to one another, students often board the same buses resulting in crowding and extended wait times.
Myrick believes that a charter bus would be helpful for Girls’ High students but says that it’s up to SEPTA.
Students also believe that SEPTA could make changes to help improve transportation.
“Personally the biggest issue I have with SEPTA is safety,” Balsam Adam, a junior at George Washington Carver Engineering and Science High School said. “Many of the people who take SEPTA are women, children, and students, and safety is not the number one priority SEPTA has to offer for its riders.”
Even with the changes planned with SEPTA Forward, students hope to be understood better by administrators with the challenge of getting to school on time.
“You can't control how fast someone's bus or train moves, even if you give them a piece of paper assigning detention,” said Tasneem.
Zahiya Daniels and Eyitemi Odusola are sophomores at The Philadelphia High School for Girls, Toga Mohamed is a junior at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, and Elijah Sanford Abdul-Aziz is a senior at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School. They were participants in Youthcast Media Group’s fall workshop on transportation and worked with former YMG Assistant Editor Kyndall Hubbard. YMG is a nonprofit that teaches high school students across the country to report on health and social issues that impact communities of color, and the solutions to these issues.