Reduced school bus service has Regina parents scrambling for alternatives

Students at Regina's public schools are heading back to class, but to the dismay of many parents and care providers in the city, about 1,000 fewer children will be taking the bus.

Parents considering everything from sending 4-year-olds by taxi to switching schools

Kim Hengstler runs a busy daycare in Regina's Fairways West neighbourhood. Her home no longer qualifies for bus service to McLurg elementary school, leaving her in a 'complicated bind.' (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Students at Regina's public schools are heading back to class, but to the dismay of many parents and care providers in the city, about 1,000 fewer children will be taking the bus.

Due to a $9.5 million funding shortfall following the most recent provincial budget, Regina Public Schools announced that students living within a one-kilometre radius of their school would not be eligible for busing.

The changes come into effect today, and while many children spent the past week enjoying their final days of summer, many parents scrambled to figure out how to get their young children to school.

Walking not an option, say parents

"We couldn't come up with any solutions," said Jonathan Turner, a Regina police officer, of trying to figure out how to get his four-year-old son to school.

Jonathan Turner spent the summer struggling with how he was going to get his four-year-old son (left) to school without bus service. (Submitted by Jonathan Turner)

Turner's home is a 1.2 kilometre walk from McLurg elementary school, but falls within the one kilometre zone ineligible for busing.

"We looked at the possibility of private busing, we looked at trying to change our [work] hours to accommodate picking up and dropping off.

"We don't have any family in town, so it makes it extremely difficult."

Turner described feeling like he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Though he said he doesn't blame Regina Public Schools for the change, he said letting his son walk to school is out of the question.

"Here's the way I put it: I can't leave my four-year-old at home [alone]. If I do, it's against the law, and social services will be banging on my door and I'll probably be losing my kids.

"Yet, I'm expected to think it's OK to send them on a busy street and walk 1.2 kilometres. It just doesn't make logical sense to me."

Daycare buys a van

A couple of weeks before his son's first day, Turner finally came up with a feasible solution.

"Thankfully our daycare provider stepped up and said she would provide transportation. In order to do that, she has gone out and purchased a new van with more seating, so she has now an eight-passenger van."

Turner said he and his wife, along with the other families at the daycare, are helping shoulder the cost, adding roughly $100 to their regular monthly fees. They've also had to move their son to the same school the daycare's other clients go to in order to make it work. 

"We're lucky enough that both my wife and I have full-time, good-paying jobs, and I think it's really important to note that while, yes, we can pay to get out of this situation … it's not financially feasible for a lot of parents."

Parents like Turner, whose children no longer qualify for bus service, now also have to pay for lunchtime supervision.

That cost is $100 a year per child, to a maximum of $200. 

'Quite awful'

While Turner's daycare provider is driving her clients' children to school, not everyone is able to provide that option.

"My issue is trying to get some kids to McLurg [elementary school] while I also have other children in my care who still qualify for busing at other schools," said Kim Hengstler, who runs a busy daycare in Regina's Fairways West neighbourhood.

As of this school year, her home no longer qualifies for bus service to McLurg — leaving her in what she described as a "complicated bind."

"I have to be here to get some kids on buses [to other schools] in the morning and be here at the end of the day for drop offs."

As a result, Hengstler said she can't walk with the McLurg students, which include two four-year-olds, to their school herself, and she has spent the summer racking her brain for solutions.   

Kim Hengstler was cut off from bus service to McLurg elementary school due to the budget cuts. (Submitted by Kim Hengstler)

"I've looked at increasing my fees for either myself or my families to pay for private busing service or cab service.

"I've also looked into finding someone to drive my own personal vehicle. I've thought about before and after school programs, as well as switching schools."

Last week she reluctantly concluded that putting her McLurg children in a cab was her only option.

"It's actually [feels] quite awful … putting them with a stranger," said Hengstler.

"I mean you care for other people's kids, they put in trust with you, and you just don't want anything to happen to them."

She also described a host of practical concerns: ranging from whether the driver "is going to be reliable" to how "a four year old is supposed to put their own car seat in a vehicle and buckle themselves in?"

On Aug. 31, Hengstler came up with another solution.

"I'm working with another family to set up a before and after school program at their home, which is just two blocks away, but outside the one kilometre zone.

"My husband will drop the kids off in the morning, and I'll pick them up after school."

Losing busing, losing business

Though Hengstler initially worried that she'd lose clients because of the changes, those fears didn't pan out.

However, as some parents look for daycares that do qualify for bus service, or alter their work schedules to walk their children to school themselves, some providers are losing business.

"We have lost some of our children to busing," said Kelsey Stewart who works at Hope's Home, a care home for children with complex medical needs, as well as typically-developing children.

According to Stewart, all the "typical" children recently left Hope's Home's after school program — at least one because of busing changes, though Stewart worries the rest may have left for that reason as well.

That means the program will no longer be integrated between "typical" children and children with complex needs — a huge loss according to staff.

"For typical children it really benefits them because they understand that all people are different and have different needs and how to relate to a child that has those needs, and how to become friends with them ... so to have this at a young age for children is so important," said Erin Sebastian, a development worker with the program.

Erin Sebastian says the integrated nature of Hope's Home's after school program is one of its greatest strengths. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Regina Public Schools recommends walking

"I feel for parents because it is a new model, but we wanted to keep as many resources in the classroom as possible," said Mike Walter, deputy director of school services with Regina Public Schools.

He's encouraging parents to practise walking to school with their children, and to connect with other parents who may be walking the same route.

Walter is also cautioning drivers to take extra care around school zones. He said he believes children, even kindergarten-age, are capable of walking to school safely.