Lingering safety doubts have some Ontario school bus drivers unsure about return to work

How many parents will be willing to let their kids ride the bus? And how many drivers will be willing to get behind the wheel?

Province has said buses may be operating ‘closer to capacity’ this September

A perennial shortage of school bus drivers could be worse this year, with some drivers on the fence about coming back due to safety concerns. (Kate Rutherford/CBC)

There are less than four weeks left until the first day of school, but school bus driver Mary Hemphill still isn't sure if she'll be returning to her job.  

Hemphill, who works in York Region, says she loves her job and wants to go back, but feels rattled by the prospect of coming within inches of so many students with the risk of contracting COVID-19 still very much a concern.

"My biggest concern is that the buses tend to be overcrowded at the best of times, and there's been no mention of pulling back the number of students on the buses," she told CBC Toronto. 
'I can't afford to get sick,' said Mary Hempill. 'I'm 68, and in my bubble I have a family member who is a two-time cancer survivor.' (Submitted by Mary Hemphill)

"I can't afford to get sick. I'm 68, and in my bubble I have a family member who is a two-time cancer survivor," she said. 

Hemphill's situation reflects two of the biggest unknowns when it comes to school buses this year: How many parents will be willing to let their kids ride the bus? And how many drivers will be willing to get behind the wheel?

Drivers 'on the fence' 

In its back to school plan, Ontario warns that buses may be called on to operate "closer to capacity" this September — which, on larger buses, can be upwards of 70 students. 

The exact numbers won't be clear until parents make their decisions about whether to send their children to school and what kind of transportation they'll use to get them there.

"At this point, we don't have the numbers for how many students are going to be on each individual bus," said Nancy Daigneault, the executive director of the School Bus Ontario Association, which represents operators.  

As parents fill out surveys sent by their school boards, Daigneault says many drivers have indicated that, like Hemphill, they are waiting to hear how many students they'll be expected to drive before making their final decision about coming back. 

"I think we're going to get more clarity… depending on bus capacity," she said. "I think there's a lot [of drivers] still on the fence right now." 

Debbie Montgomery, who represents about 1,300 Greater Toronto Area bus drivers in her capacity as president of Unifor 4268, put it more bluntly, telling CBC Toronto there's a "phenomenal amount of concern." 

"A school bus doesn't have the square footage of a classroom," she said. "And our school bus drivers could be transporting three classrooms." 

Driver shortages 'always a possibility'

Bus driver shortages have been an issue in the GTA, chalked up in the past by advocates to tough working conditions and low pay.   

Kevin Hodgkinson, general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group, says drivers don't typically commit to working until the routes on offer have been presented to them. 

This year, he says, that process has been delayed and won't happen in Toronto until the last week of August, leaving about two weeks until the first day of class. 

Shortages are "always a possibility," he said, adding that it's too soon to tell what this year will look like.

To prepare for a driver shortage, Hodgkinson said the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board are considering the possibility of a "phased approach."

"The students with special needs, we would prioritize... And then the students who are into the regular classes, their busing may not start for however many weeks after school starts. So parents may be responsible for transportation of those students," he said. 

The mentality, Hodgkinson said, is to "prepare for the worst and hope for the best," adding: "I don't think anyone feels comfortable this September." 

Extra cleaning and PPE  

The government's back to school plan also lays out a number of safety measures on school buses, including extra disinfecting, assigned seats for students and providing PPE for drivers. 

Hemphill says that she's been told she'll do that twice-daily cleaning herself as well as a weekly deep clean, which she says she has yet to hear the details of. She was also disappointed that the provincial plan included no mention of a plexiglass barrier. 

In Gatineau, Que., a school bus driver poses with his mask and plastic protective sheet approved by the provincial transportation authority. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

As the anxious countdown to back to school continues, she's been reaching out to her local political representatives, but says she hasn't been impressed by the responses she's gotten. 

"It's the same rhetoric we get every time: 'We have the best plan.'" she said. 

After hearing about the added duties this year, former Brampton school bus driver Phyllis Wells came to this conclusion: "If I weren't retired already, I'd retire now." 

Bus drivers, Wells said, are "very badly treated, very badly paid, and on top of all that now they have to put their lives on the line."