School bus operator refusing to drive over COVID-19 concerns
'We're not providing a safe environment for the children,' Bronson Richard says
Ottawa's school bus driver shortage has reached a crisis.
According to the Ottawa School Transportation Authority (OSTA), 30 routes affecting 45 schools have had to be cancelled, leaving more than 2,300 students in the two English-language boards without a ride to class. The reason, OSTA says, is it's short 100 drivers.
Make that 101.
On Monday morning, school bus driver Bronson Richard, 24, was preparing to head out on his early morning route for the company Voyago, when he had a crisis of conscience.
Richard overheard a conversation on the bus radio between another driver and a dispatcher. That driver had encountered a high school student who was refusing to wear a mask, and wanted permission to prevent the student from boarding.
"What dispatch said was … you have to let them on the bus," said Richard, speaking to the CBC's Ottawa Morning.
Richard contacted his supervisor, who confirmed what the dispatcher had said.
They're sardined into the back and they don't have the same protections I do.- Bronson Richard
"I don't feel safe doing this," Richard said he told his supervisor. "I wouldn't feel ethical doing this. My job as a school bus driver is to safely get the kids to school, and if I can't protect the students from each other on the bus by virtue of them being willing to wear a mask during a pandemic, then I can't keep anyone safe."
That's when Richard decided he wouldn't drive the bus that morning, even though he was keenly aware of the impact that last-minute decision would have on families.
"I felt terrible. It's a rural community. They deserve an education, and I'm sad the policy doesn't allow them a safe way to school."
Richard, who has Type 1 diabetes, says his primary concern is for the students.
"I've got a mask. I've got a face shield. I've got gloves. I'm kept far away from the children. But the rest of them, they're sardined into the back and they don't have the same protections I do," said Richard.
Richard is also concerned about how often the bus is cleaned. He delivers two separate busloads of students each morning, and again each afternoon. He thinks the bus should be cleaned between loads.
"We're not providing a safe environment for the children," he said. "We haven't done enough."
OSTA, which contracts Voyago and its drivers, disagrees.
"We have spent the last six months ... agonizing over these same questions, day in and day out. Nobody took vacation this summer. Safety was our absolute first priority," said Vicky Kyriaco, general manager of OSTA, which operates more than 550 school bus routes in Ottawa for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board.
Both boards say it's mandatory for students in grades 4-12 to wear masks while aboard school buses, and highly recommended for younger children. But like OSTA, they make exceptions for certain medical conditions, and the rules aren't always so clear-cut.
"Maybe that student who wasn't wearing a mask had a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask. And you can't ask that question. That's a private question," Kyriaco said. "A driver who's fully protected has to let that individual on the bus."
But if a student is showing symptoms of an illness, the driver has recourse.
"We actually have signs on the outside of the bus that says sick students should not board the bus. If a driver recognizes a sick child before they enter the bus, they need to radio in. Then the operator calls the parents to … come and get their child," said Kyriaco.
Kyriaco also defended OSTA's cleaning protocols.
"Cleaning actually has to occur twice a day. So maybe the driver is doing it at midday once and maybe the cleaning is happening [again] at the yard, but it is a full clean, twice a day," she said, adding that drivers are asked to disinfect high-touch handrails between every run.
"The fact is, there's not enough time to clean the entire bus between every single run. We'd have to cancel half of the routes."
Every driver has a different level of risk. They have their own health concerns that they have to be thinking about. That's absolutely fair.- Vicky Kyriaco, OSTA
Kyriaco said most school bus drivers are retirees in their 60s and older, and many have decided not to drive this fall for fear of contracting COVID-19.
"Every driver has a different level of risk. They have their own health concerns that they have to be thinking about. That's absolutely fair," said Kyriaco. "We don't blame any drivers who are choosing not to return to work under the current circumstances."
Meanwhile, OSTA says parents should expect the disruptions to last several weeks.
"We know that a lot of drivers are waiting to see how it goes before they come back. We're hoping in a month they'll see that there's really not as big a risk as they thought and they'll come back," said Kyriaco.
Richard has not ruled out returning to his own route, and said he has a meeting scheduled with his human resources manager and supervisor Wednesday morning to discuss his concerns.
- A previous version of this story said Bronson Richard quit his job over his COVID-19 concerns, but he is in fact still employed and has simply refused to work under current conditions.Sep 16, 2020 12:07 PM ET
With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning