Bus driver shortages will hit Hamilton schools again as kids go back to class

The HWCDSB and HWDSB have announced more school bus driver shortages as class starts next week. They expect to be about 15 drivers short.

Hamilton school boards expect to be 15 drivers short

Hamilton school boards say that bus driver shortages will continue as kids head back to class. (Adam Carter/CBC)

For students across Hamilton, school is back in session next week. But another year of bus driver shortages might make it difficult for some kids to actually get there on time. 

The Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board and Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board put out a joint statement on Friday advising about the shortage continuing for the fourth successive year. 

"Although progress has been made, Hamilton-Wentworth Student Transportation Services (HWSTS) has advised both HWCDSB and HWDSB that a bus driver shortage will continue to impact local school bus routes," said chair of HWCDSB, Patrick Daly and chair of HWDSB, Alex Johnstone. 

The statement went on to say that the shortage isn't as severe as those of previous years and that the boards are "confident" that they are in a better place for this September. 

They expect to be about 15 drivers short next week, with more concrete numbers available in the coming weeks. 

Families can sign up for email notifications of delays and cancellations at the HWSTS website

In a press release, it's said that HWSTS averaged about 20 to 25 routes shortfall in 2018-2019 that required spares and doubling of routes by drivers.  The transportation service handles busing for both boards. The actual bus service is provided by several busing companies.

The shortages have been hitting Hamilton schools for years. In 2016, 18 routes did not have drivers

And in March 2019, the school boards even looked at changing bell times to allow kids more time to get to class. 

Johnstone previously told CBC that kids had been arriving anywhere from around five minutes to an hour late to class. 

The school boards have also been facing an increase in expenses, which she expected transportation costs to raise by "millions of dollars." 

Daly said a more exact number of how many kids are affected will be available at the end of next week. He said they are continuing to work ways to lower the number of shortages. 

"There will be delays," he said. "But again, generally it will be less than last year. I know that's not satisfactory...we're working to reduce the impact over the next couple of months."

When asked what solutions the boards had in the works, Daly said that they were working with current transportation providers and reaching out other carriers. He also said that bell time studies will be conducted across both boards in the fall. 

Johnstone added that the boards concentrated on talking with drivers to ensure there were no surprises come the first day of school. 

"Our transportation staff worked very closely with our bus companies in the spring and especially over the summer to have direct conversations with drivers to determine if they were going to return for a September start up," she said. "[This allowed us] to better plan and identify what the actual shortages were going to be."

The province weighed in on the shortages Friday saying it was going to address the problem by "continuing the School Bus Driver Retention Pilot Program."

The Ministry of Education said the program would partner with the Ontario School Bus Association to reward drivers who stayed throughout the school year. 

Eligible drivers can receive up to two separate bonuses of up to $1,000 each (less applicable taxes) for continuous employment during September to December 2019 and January to June 2020. 

Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé investigated Toronto's school boards' transportation, which showed that bus drivers were leaving the profession. The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority also announced in March that part-time hours, a lack of benefits and low wages were making it difficult to retain drivers