Why this Hamilton school bus driver doesn't plan on working during COVID-19
Catholic school board chair suggests bus driver shortage is likely scenario in 2020
Last year, Heather Ridge drove school buses for elementary schools in the Catholic board, the public board and also a high school, but she won't this year.
The 65-year-old Ancaster driver told CBC she has too many concerns that prevent her from working a job she loves.
"It's not going to be safe for any driver ... I've got kids from many schools, many grades, my social circle becomes thousands of people," she said.
Hamilton's schools are hoping they won't face a bus driver shortage, as they have in recent years, but it's certainly a possibility given the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's another element of uncertainty just weeks before schools re-open and students can return to class. Without drivers, it will be much harder for kids to attend school.
"Bus operators are doing everything they can to secure a sufficient number of drivers but I know it will continue to be concern going into the school year," Pat Daly, the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board chairperson, told CBC. The public and catholic boards operate a joint busing service that manages student transportation for both boards. It typically serves about 28,000 students.
Three weeks ago, Daly said, a report showed the number of driver should be similar to last year, but updated numbers are coming soon — last year, Hamilton school boards were about 15 drivers short.
"Our experience has been the numbers early into summer can change significantly toward end of summer because drivers make different decisions and move on to other areas of employment. This year, that's obviously compounded around the concerns for health and safety."
Manny Figueiredo, director of Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board echoed Daly's concerns.
"Every year we're always worried about the number of bus drivers coming back ... are we worried we won't have enough? Yes."
"We'll have clear numbers by the end of next week of how many are returning."
He also noted students learning online and some parents able to drive their kids to school may alleviate the demand for drivers.
Local bus companies like First Student Canada and Attridge Transportation did not respond for comment.
While some bus operators previously told CBC they would try to keep bus windows open to increase ventilation, Ridge says you can't possibly do that all the time.
Also, buses are loud, which Ridge thinks will force kids will to raise their voices to speak and lead to a higher chance of spreading droplets with COVID-19.
She adds that students boarding the bus would be too close to her, even with a mask and face shield.
"But will that protect me? It will probably protect them more than me," she explained.
She also says she will be responsible for sanitizing the bus. "I don't know what protection I'm going to get for that."
Ridge said she hasn't heard from her employer.
She said she also contacted her local legislative assembly, the ministry of education, the school board and Doug Ford's office but hasn't received an answer.
For her to feel safe enough to drive a bus, she would need to know more about these three measures:
- Will there be mandatory masking for all students on a bus.
- Will there be a barrier between her and students near the doors.
- What will the seating arrangements be for students.
While Ridge doesn't completely blame the boards, she wouldn't blame anyone who didn't use buses.
"As a parent I would be worried about putting my kids on a bus because it's less controlled than a classroom," she said.
"I'm still really in the dark, except some things are starting to become clear and I don't like them."