Calgary

Calgary Board of Education cuts 70% of its bus attendants

The Calgary Board of Education has eliminated more than two-thirds of its positions for bus attendants, raising concerns about the burden on bus drivers and the care of special needs children.

Assistants provide support to special needs students and their bus drivers

Michelle Baer says her 14-year-old son, Jonathan Baer, won't be taking the school bus this year after multiple changes were introduced, including the removal of many bus attendants. (Letf: Michelle Baer; Right: CBC)

The Calgary Board of Education is cutting the positions of 70 per cent of its bus attendants. 

These people are meant to provide support to special needs students and their bus drivers while the kids are being transported to and from school. 

Last school year, the CBE had more than 230 school bus attendants. This year, there are approximately 70. 

Michelle Baer said this is one of the big changes that led her to decide not to send her 14-year-old son Jonathan, who is autistic, on the bus in September. 

"They are there to provide support for the children, to help keep them calm and so that the bus driver doesn't have to because he needs to be driving. This way, children can be taken care of at the same time," she said.

"Without them, the children could tend to become aggressive with each other over what an average person would think as nothing … so without an attendant, that causes a huge problem. The children are hurting each other until the bus driver can find a safe time to pull over and try and deal with this."

'Drivers aren't exactly special needs trained'

Baer said putting that responsibility on the driver isn't fair.

"A lot of times the drivers aren't exactly special needs trained. They're aware that they're driving a special needs bus but they don't really know the different ways to handle these kids," she said. 

Brenda Gibson, manager of CBE transportation services, said bus attendants will continue to provide enhanced support for the most vulnerable students, including those attending Christine Meikle and Emily Follensbee schools. 

Other students will be supported by their driver and through "enhanced safety plans."

"With regards to strapping in, it becomes the driver who takes care of that. At times we do ask for families or schools to help with putting students in a harness, for example, if [the child is] particularly sensitive to touch. But the driver would take on that responsibility," she said.

"In terms of proactive strategies, we would have some form of distraction, whether it's a book, a toy, a blanket, a tablet — whatever it is so that there is that measure to help them on the bus without it being another adult."

The CBE said the final number of attendants may increase slightly with new registrations once the school year begins.

Special needs children could experience regression

Lyndon Parakin, executive director of the Autism Calgary Association, said they're hearing from a lot of families who won't be able to send their children to a site-based school because of the mandatory masks required on buses. 

"Without an attendant, it's not likely to be successful for many children," he said. 

He said without attendants, the bus atmosphere might be too much for a special needs child to handle. 

"It can be very stressful for a child and set them up for failure for the day," he said. 

Removing these people from special needs students who are used to their presence can have longer-term consequences, too.

"The really sad thing here that might also be missed is for a child with autism, who may have had a lot of intervention to get to at a level of independence to be on these special needs buses — to make these changes so broad and so sudden, it may take years for that child to acquire that same sense of independence," he said.

"The consequences aren't just the immediate inability to learn but, potentially you may have to go back to where you were three years ago to regain the kind of skills toward independence that they had."

Lyndon Parakin, executive director of Autism Calgary, says he's hearing from many parents who feel they can't send their special needs child on the bus this year because of CBE changes. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Parakin said bus attendants make the journey safe for all passengers and the driver.

"Because it allows the driver to focus on driving. By eliminating the attendant, you've put the driver in a position to have to watch and monitor all the children," he said. 

"What we often see on buses without an attendant is that if there is an elevated behaviour, the bus driver has to stop the bus and contact the parent to come and take the child, and it cannot move safely otherwise."

Compounded with route changes, increased commute times and more, Baer said it was just too many changes for her family to feel comfortable using CBE transportation this year.

Changes to bus fees for 2020-21

Special needs families aren't the only ones facing changes when it comes to CBE transportation this school year. 

The board has announced its transportation service levels and increased fees based on the survey the board did in March.

The fee was changed from $365 a year to $465 a year for those students who are mandated for transportation. 

"And those would be our students who attend their regular, designated community school and live more than 2.4 kilometres away from that school," said Gibson. 

For students in alternative programs who live between 1.6 kilometres and 2.4 kilometres from the school, the non-mandated fee is $800 a year. 

"The students in specialized programs required to take specialized transportation continue to be free," said Gibson.

The board said it has also removed midday transportation for kindergarten.

"We still provide transportation either to school or from school," said Gibson. "And so that, as a non-mandated service with only one way, is $400 a year."

Kaitee Schuller has three kids, two of which rely on the CBE's yellow bus service and attend the arts program at Willow Park School.

"So I'm supposed to pay $1,600 — so $160 a month — for my girls to get to school, which is absurd," she said. "Definitely it wasn't in the budget."

Schuller said she wishes she was able to drive her kids to school, but that doesn't work for their family.

"Unfortunately, I can't drive them to school and my husband works much earlier so he can't, either, because they are actually a late starting school, they don't start school until about 9:15 every morning." she said. 

Schuller said the CBE is offering only one stop in the community she lives in for the bus that will take her daughters to and from Willow Park. 

"So my girls have to walk almost two kilometres each way to get to this bus stop," she said. "When it's minus 30 out, my girls still have to walk a good way to get to and from the bus."

On top of seeing an increase for the cost of transporting her girls, Schuller said they're also paying $77 a month for her son to ride public transit to high school.

"They got rid of that program last year that reimburses for public transit passes," she said. "That's a lot of money each month just to get my kids to and from school."

Gibson said this year's ridership numbers for the school bus have decreased system-wide. 

"Last year, we had 24,068 registered riders, and today, we have 15,540. So it's a difference of about 8,500."

She said it's hard to pinpoint what exactly is to blame for this.

There are more students learning from home this year as a result of COVID-19 and there has been a number of service level changes — that come as a result of a motion passed by the board of trustees in January to balance transportation costs with fees and provincial funding.

"It's hard to say which one is playing as a dominant factor."   

Alberta Education said that in the 2020 budget, student transportation funding will be $310 million — $15 million higher than the previous year.

"If school boards are choosing to divert money or raise fees on parents, they are doing so despite a five per cent increase to all boards, and we expect those parents to hold their elected trustees accountable."

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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