Still not enough school bus drivers in northeastern Ontario
Some students now going to class when buses are available to take them there
The shortage of school bus drivers is seeing routes cancelled and buses delayed across northeastern Ontario for a third week.
But this is not a new problem, it's just gotten worse because of COVID-19.
In the Sudbury and Manitoulin areas, 14 bus routes will not be running this week, which is down from 25 the first week of school.
Renee Boucher, executive director of the Sudbury Student Services Consortium, says some newly trained drivers are now on the road and some drivers who were hesitant to come back to work at first are now back behind the wheel.
She says the consortium has hired extra staff to go through the thousands of e-mails from parents and the regular staff are putting in double shifts to sort out all the concerns from parents.
Boucher says some are "frustrated, but they understand" and others "have spoken to my staff in a way you should never speak to anyone in your lifetime."
She says one of the main bus operators in Sudbury is now offering $20 per hour to try to entice more people to take a school bus driving job, but she says it's been tough to find drivers for a few years now.
"And we need to ask drivers what they want. You know, for some it may be an increase in hourly, for others it may be benefits, for others it may just be to support them with discipline issues on buses," says Boucher.
"As an industry, we need to look at it and see exactly what the problem is."
In Timmins, some students are now going to class when a bus is available to take them.
Some high school students now have a 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. school day, in between the normal morning and afternoon bus runs.
"You know, it does say something about the state we're in," says Ryan Hartling, supervisor of transportation for North East Tri-Board Student Transportation.
"We have to do some creative thinking."
Hartling says about 15 per cent of drivers didn't return this fall, mostly in Kirkland Lake and Timmins, although a few have returned after seeing the protocols in place to protect them from COVID-19.
"What I'm being told is that if somebody walked in today that is not licensed and wants to go through the process, they probably wouldn't be behind the wheel of a bus until December," says Hartling.
In the North Bay area, no routes have been cancelled, but the lack of drivers is leading to some routes being amalgamated and delaying many buses.
"Our route system is so interconnected in a network with transfers... so rather than looking at one route that's delayed, you're looking at five or six or seven," says Chuck Seguin, executive director of Nipissing Parry Sound Student Transportation Services.
Hartling says "the golden question" is how to solve the driver shortage long-term, something the provincial government is reviewing.
"It is a tough job. It's very odd hours, the safety aspect and the liability is huge. It takes a special person," says Hartling.
"We have great drivers who love doing the job and they do it for the job."
Rob Allen is one of the bus drivers who returned this fall, his second year behind the wheel of a bus in the Thessalon area.
"It doesn't worry me, no," the Bell Canada pensioner says of working during the pandemic.
"As long as I take precautions and that's about the best I can do."
There are some bus drivers who do another part-time job in between their runs, often at a fast food restaurant, and there are some young parents who drive school buses and bring their toddlers with them.
But the majority of school bus drivers, about 60 per cent across Ontario, are retired people like Allen.
"I turned 65 and I needed something to do," he says. "I decided I see if I could drive bus and there's always a need for bus drivers."
Nancy Daigneault— the executive director of School Bus Ontario, which represents 130 private school bus companies across the province— says all-day kindergarten signalled a big change for bus drivers.
That meant there were no more midday routes, all bus driver jobs became part-time and mostly filled by seniors.
"That's where the problems really began and they've just become more acute over the years and then this year with COVID-19, it's become quite a serious issue," says Daigneault.
She says her group is working with the province to come up with some solutions, both in the short-term during the pandemic and in the long run.
Daigneault was pleased to see the province reinstate the driver retention program it was originally planning to scrap, which offers school bus drivers a bonus for good performance twice a year.
Just before the pandemic, weeks of rotating teacher strikes saw a public debate on the education system and how it's funded, but with almost no mention of how the kids get to school.
"Classrooms are the first thing everyone talks about," says Daigneault.
"But the day begins with a school bus and ends with a school bus. So absolutely transportation should be higher up in the discussion."