Here's what we know about Hamilton school buses during COVID-19

School bus driver shortages may affect school board plans for busing during the pandemic. With more risks for drivers and more buses needed for students, it's unclear what will happen if there are too many kids who need the bus and too few drivers to bring them to school.

It's unclear how school boards will deal with potential bus driver shortages

Kids hop on a school bus in Ottawa as the driver sits behind a plastic screen, wearing a mask. Hamilton schools are still trying to figure out how busing will work during COVID-19. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Diana Jacobs has four grandchildren and a lot of questions about schools this year but her main concern is if there will be enough buses to take the kids to school.

"That's the scary thing, I don't even know ...  If they don't take a bus and the buses are cancelled, there's no safe way to get to school," said Jacobs.

As a new school year approaches, Hamilton school boards hope they will have enough bus drivers to pick up and drop off students.

But with a history of driver shortages and the pandemic forcing fewer kids on buses to keep them physically distanced, it's unclear how school boards will respond.

The best solution school boards and the province have mustered up is encouraging parents to have kids walk, bike or be driven to school to ease the strain on buses.

Right now, it looks like buses will be on the roads, but it's unclear how many.

Bus shortages not new

Last year, Hamilton school boards were about 15 drivers short. Earlier in 2019, school boards even looked at changing bell times to allow kids more time to get to class. 

In 2016, 18 routes did not have drivers.

With drivers dealing with part-time hours, a lack of benefits, low wages and now more risks than ever, some parents wonder if the drivers are adequtely compensated to take on that level of responsibility. 

"Do they get paid enough to care enough?" asks Veronica Elliott, who considers herself lucky that her kids don't use buses.

A school bus driver in Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, Que., greets children through a plastic shield. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Bus companies waiting for direction

School boards in Hamilton are still sorting out all the details of riding buses in the fall, but some main themes are clear — fewer students on buses who are already in contact during the day, regular cleaning, spacing between kids and face coverings for drivers and most students.

Pat Daly, Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board chairperson, told CBC the board is sending out a survey soon to determine how many students will need busing. From there Hamilton-Wentworth Student Transportation Services (HWSTS) will determine the bus routes.

Meanwhile, the public school board noted that in a survey it conducted, eight per cent of respondents said limitations on school buses would be a barrier to returning to school.

Tammy Hull, operations manager at Caledonia Transportation, said she is waiting on direction from HWSTS. The company did not respond to CBC's requests for comment.

Chris Harwood, president of student transportation in Canada at Elliott Coach Lines, told CBC in an email statement that most protocols are still being developed but drivers are being trained on how to manage students during COVID-19.

He also said they will implement seating plans to maintain cohorts and try to keep windows open when possible to increase ventilation in the buses.

Harwood stressed that parents play an important role, noting they are responsible for their children and ensuring those children follow the rules.

"Parents must also screen their children every day for COVID-19 symptoms, and be prepared to keep them away from school and the school bus when they are unwell," he wrote.

"Parents should understand that their school bus driver is a critical link in the school reopening process. They are professional and caring people, dedicated to student safety."

It's unclear what happens to a bus route if one of the students tests positive. 

Autobus Campeau says students on its school buses in western Quebec will be given assigned seats to keep them apart as classes resume. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

RNR Patient Transfer Services recently stopped providing student transportation. Rob Rivait, the company's owner, told CBC he feels lucky he got out before the pandemic hit. 

The company used caravan-type vehicles to transport children with special needs. 

He said managing student transportation will be a challenge.

"I'm not sure if they even have a formula for how you deal with students. That's the big question, how do you deal with close contact and infection control," he said.

Rivait said transporting special needs children would be especially difficult. A barrier would be needed between driver and student, but the driver also has to be able to assist the student if needed.

Other student transportation providers did not respond for comment.

Buses critical to a 'return to normal'

Jacobs is like many parents, grandparents and guardians entangled in the latest societal effort to push back against the virus that has taken so many lives and bits of everyday life.

Without a way to school, many kids may have to endure a year at home, trying to learn through a computer screen without a class full of their peers. It's an option that was unpopular with many parents and educators in the spring.

Public health experts have also said the benefits of going back outweigh the risks.

For Jacobs and her family, returning to school would be a sign that life is going "back to normal" (even if experts say people should all expect a "new normal") — and buses play a critical role in that, she says.


Bobby Hristova is a reporter for CBC News in Hamilton. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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