Nfld. & Labrador

Masks should be mandatory on school buses, operator says

Companies that run the buses that take children to schools would like to see kids wearing masks when schedules resume next month.

Operators concerned about physical distancing, schedules, health of aging drivers

Dave Callahan says some school bus drivers have health problems that pose a concern. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

The head of a group that represents several private school bus operators says non-medical masks should be mandatory on buses when kids climb on board in September, citing the safety of drivers and passengers alike. 

"Everywhere else that we go, physical distancing and this type of thing is supposed to be honoured.… We're hoping the same thing applies to school buses," said Dave Callahan, head of the Newfoundland and Labrador Bus Operators Group. 

It's not yet clear whether students will need to wear masks at school in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

On Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said mandatory masks at schools is still up for debate, while other provinces such as Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario have their own guidelines for masks in schools this year. 

School bus operators across Newfoundland and Labrador are still without COVID-19 guidelines, just weeks before the start of a new school year.

Callahan said public health regulations that have been developed other public spaces — such as retail — should apply to school buses, because of the close proximity of passengers. 

"You go to [a] store, you got these distancing dots. If that's as important as we do believe it's supposed to be, and I'm sure that it is, we need the same type of idea applied to school busing."

Details have been deferred

Operators — like parents, students and teachers — have been waiting for a plan, although the provincial government has delayed disclosing details of what school will look like this year. 

He said there has been no clear picture as to how buses will operate, with the school year starting in only a few weeks. 

Moreover, the employees of private companies have health concerns of their own. 

"Right now, a lot of the bus drivers in the province are older people, [with] compromised health and different issues such as that," Callahan told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning

"We have to get kids to school. No question. Kids have to return from school. No question. But we're not getting back anything from the school boards as to a plan yet. I really don't envy them on what they're going to do."

Callahan said he wishes the bus industry had been engaged in return-to-school planning, to come up with regulations that will make everyone happy. He said, as of Wednesday, there has been zero engagement. 

"A lot of operators have called, have made requests for information, none of which has come back to this point," he said. 

Developing schedules will be key issue

Meanwhile, some suggestions have been made already, said Callahan, but the issue is that nothing has been set in stone. 

Callahan said partitions around drivers — such as the acrylic barriers seen in many retail stores right now — and reduced capacity on the buses have been mentioned. However, a reduced capacity means more runs for the driver and will increase the cost for the operator, he said. 

A further cost increase to operators will be having to sanitize each vehicle between runs.

It is the scheduling, though, that Callahan says will be an issue. 

"They've never had to do this before. They've never had their days set up to absorb all of this extra labour that's going to be involved with attending to this task to maintain these buses.… Making it as safe as they can, that's a humongous task," he said. 

"With these reduced numbers I don't know how they can do this without extra buses, extra runs, staggered openings, but none of that is clear yet. We have not received an actual plan on return to school."

In a letter to principals and assistant principals Wednesday evening, Tony Stack, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, said back-to-school plans are delayed until early next week. An updated plan had been expected on Thursday. 

Callahan said it's getting late for plans to be developed, leaving bus operators little time to prepare. 

"Before you can adapt or do anything with a school bus, there's got to be some protocol accepted by the system that says you can do this, but there's nothing that says how you can put up a physical barrier," he said. 

"There are lives at play here, and our health care is not exactly ready to absorb any stupid moves that we make, so let's make the right ones. This one regards our most precious resource — our children." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

With files from Newfoundland Morning

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