'We are a forgotten part of the school system,' say bus drivers concerned about COVID-19
'Still working through' plans for protecting school bus drivers, 1 GTA board says
Many school bus drivers worried about the novel coronavirus are thinking twice about getting back behind the wheel, as school boards across the province work on plans for getting kids to school if in-class instruction resumes in the fall.
Many drivers are older, semi-retired or retired people, a group generally more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, who drive for extra income to make ends meet. Some are skeptical that school boards and the province will have a workable plan to keep them safe.
Lynn, who doesn't want to be identified for fear of losing shifts, is one of those veteran drivers.
"There's a lot of drivers worried. We have health issues," she told CBC News. "We are a forgotten part of the school system."
She says some are concerned that it will be difficult to physically distance from children and there are no details from the school boards about how they will keep everyone safe.
"It's going to be impossible to get those buses sanitized between runs," she said, adding drivers often do many trips in the mornings and afternoons to multiple schools.
And she says plans appear to be a patchwork of decisions by school boards across the province with no details being shared.
"They're all wanting a firm commitment from drivers if you're returning or not. How can a driver with health issues make a firm commitment if they don't know what the protocols are going to be?"
Still 'working through the details,' boards say
CBC News reached out to two GTA school boards to find out what they're doing to address drivers' concerns.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the country's largest, declined to comment, saying it is not yet ready to share its plans. The Peel District School Board also didn't provide any information, saying it is still "working through the details," subject to approval by the province.
Judy Rice, a school bus driver in the Brantford area, says school boards will have a difficult time retaining drivers.
"I can tell you that the boards are dreaming ... if they think that 90 per cent of drivers will be returning to the job. Closer to 60 per cent would be more realistic," Rice said in an email to CBC Toronto.
She expects a deluge of complaints from parents about being excluded from transportation due to boundary revisions, buses not showing up as scheduled, and concerns that drivers and other student are not physically distancing.
She also says the Ministry of Education funding formula used to calculate what each board gets for transportation so it can sign contracts with school bus companies is archaic..
Some drivers are earning $14 an hour, others $17 or $18, while some work for a flat rate no matter how many hours they put in.
Maria Rizzo, a trustee with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, says she and her counterparts on the board debated reopening challenges, including transportation, well into the wee hours of the morning Friday.
"We have a shortage of bus drivers at the best of times and it's my understanding that some of these bus drivers are in a high risk situation," she said,
Rizzo added that if physical distancing requirements are to be maintained, capacity will have to be capped at 20 to 24 students, so more buses will be needed.
She said kids may need to be screened before boarding.The TDSB has also suggested that children may be required to wear PPE on school buses.
"Who is going to monitor the children as they get on the bus whether or not they have a fever or symptomatic of COVID? Hopefully most kids will be able to wear a mask, but that's not going to be the situation for all kids."
Rizzo, who is a former TCDSB chair, says the solution to how to get kids to and from school if they reopen for in-class instruction in the fall will be a combination of different things and not just more buses and drivers.
"We need to do other things to make sure the kids can get to school other than busing kids. If we're not flexible, we're not creative, we're not thinking outside the box, then we're not doing our job."