Before they even reach their school doors this September, things will be different for Jill Promoli’s son and daughter, who are heading into grades 1 and 5 in Peel region. They will no longer be getting to class via a big yellow school bus.
Because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in enclosed spaces, her family has decided to forgo the bus and take a 40-minute walk to school.
“For quite some time, we've had a shortage of buses and of drivers. That's not getting better. Our route runs three kids to a seat as a standard,” Promoli says. “We don't have any confidence in putting them on the bus when there's that many kids.”
According to the Ministry of Education, more than 830,000 children in Ontario rely on school buses. As school boards across the province hammer out reopening plans with the ministry, some parents and drivers are raising concerns that bus transportation is being treated as an afterthought — and that the health and safety of those on board and in the larger communities could be put at risk.
The Ontario government is providing $114 million for coronavirus-related health and safety measures on buses and for driver retention and recruitment. Its reopening guide notes that “school boards may be required to increase the utilization of buses beyond one student per seat and operate closer to capacity.” Drivers will be given medical masks and eye protection.
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The guide is full of recommendations, but some of the requirements differ depeding on the school district. Among the suggestions: that the seat behind the driver be left empty, that kids get assigned seating, and that windows be kept open when possible. High-touch surfaces such as handrails should be disinfected at least twice daily. Masks will be required on buses for students from grades 4 to 12 and “strongly encouraged” for younger kids.
“We think that everything that can be done to help drivers and to help the school-bus operators is being done,” says Nancy Daigneault, executive director of School Bus Ontario, an association representing school-bus companies. “The ministry has had many conversations with us and is very open-minded in terms of what's needed, and they provided $40 million for cleaning and sanitizing. They announced the PPE for drivers. There has been an open dialogue and a very collaborative and positive working relationship.”
Some school-bus drivers, though, have a very different perspective. Unifor, which represents a number of drivers, mostly in the GTA, held a press conference outside a school in Scarborough on August 25 to voice their concerns. Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268 and a former driver, says they haven’t been involved in the Ministry of Education’s back-to-school plans: “It doesn’t seem like they’re too willing to talk to organized people right now.”
Montgomery referenced Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s recent photo-op. “Sitting at the front of an empty bus — that’s not the reality. We need to do more than that. They need to start talking to front-line workers. We would have loved to have been part of their 21-page plan to keep kids safe.”
The union outlined steps that would help make drivers feel safer in September. Among them: introducing an Ontario-wide plan for school buses, limiting the number of students per bus to ensure physical distancing, making masks mandatory across all grades in all school boards, and having professional cleaners sanitize buses between each run.
“I have one operator that services four different school boards,” Montgomery says. “The guidance is different everywhere, and some [school] boards, we don’t even know yet. Some boards are saying if you want to ride the bus you have to wear a mask; other boards are saying, no, we’re only going to make it mandatory for half the kids. There’s no consistency.”
A school bus at full capacity can carry about 72 children, according to Daigneault. Montgomery says that’s the equivalent of three classrooms — and that one driver’s manifest for this September has 74 names.
Promoli has similar worries about crowding and mixing on buses: “If we're planning for these cohorts of classes, which are already too big, the cohorts immediately will burst as soon as kids get onto a school bus full of kids from other classes.”
In a late-August memo obtained by TVO.org, Deputy Minister of Education Nancy Naylor told the province’s directors of education that “decisions for transportation remain with school boards and transportation consortia who enter into contractual arrangements with local school bus operators … [The ministry’s] investments will support enhanced cleaning and the health and safety of students and drivers for safe and reliable transportation services as schools reopen.”
Daigneault points to another possible issue: the association believes there will be a driver shortage this year. “The position tends to attract retirees,” she says. “It's just the nature of the business. Because they are in a higher-risk category for COVID, there's a lot of them that are expressing reluctance for coming back.”
Because of provincial regulations, Montgomery says, school-bus drivers aren’t able to use the kind of Plexiglas barriers used by city or public transportation operators.
“We don’t want to be the weak link in the system,” Montgomery says. “And that’s what it’s looking like right now.”
Rebecka Mayne, whose son will be starting Grade 4 in Simcoe County, says that some of these issues are compounded in rural areas, where bus rides are long and the same driver — and vehicle — must quickly switch from one school to another. On her son’s route, the driver drops off kids from a local high school first and then picks up elementary children. “I know there's no time for her to even stop to go to the washroom, let alone sanitize anything,” she says.
Cleaning the buses is another area of concern for drivers.
Stanfield Duverney, a driver in Toronto, says sanitizing buses means a lot of extra work. “Look at this bus. Look at how many windows [it has]. We have drivers who are elderly, who have arthritis — they cannot bend,” he says. “We are asking for the help so that we can get a clear-cut standardized program, and we need assistance in cleaning the bus. We are not professional sanitizers. We are school-bus drivers.”
Other drivers at the Unifor press conference said that sanitation should be done by outside companies and noted that cleaning on TTC buses isn’t handled by the drivers.
Frank Perrone, a driver in the Ajax-Whitby area, wants help managing the new rules some school boards have introduced — those related to assigned seating and masks, for example. “I will tell you from experience that you get a bunch of young ones, grades kindergarten through Grade 3, you’re not going to keep them in order,” he says. “So what we’d like to see is an adult monitor on each bus that has young children on board to make sure nobody gets hurt, everybody gets to school safely, and that the PPE and everything else is complied with.”
On August 26, the ministry announced allocated funding for school boards that can be used to reduce the number of students on school buses and hire extra staff or to support physical-distancing and cleaning protocols. It’s too early to tell how each board will use these funds.
“I think we're underestimating the amount of time that kids spend on a bus. Some kids are 45 minutes on a bus, twice a day,” Mayne says. “Is the bus driver able to focus on driving, or is he or she worried about looking in their mirror making sure everyone is sitting in their assigned seat and not messing around with their mask? We're setting things up in other places to keep everybody safe, and then we're putting all these children on a bus and hoping for the best, I guess.”
Though her son is among the last stops on the route, and the bus will have roughly 30 students on board, Mayne doesn’t feel confident in the bus plans. Her family is rearranging their schedules to get her son to school by car this year. Walking is not an option, since the route to school is along a busy country highway.
“We talk a lot about teachers and teachers’ health. I don't feel like we've really heard enough about this responsibility for bus drivers. They are really important in a child's education, too, and they should be supported,” she says. “Our families need to be safe with busing, too, because it's not an option for everybody to drive their child."