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Road ahead uncertain for bus operators

Provincial plans for sending children back to school next month remain in flux, with flexibility given to school boards and teachers’ unions saying measures such as classroom sizes and improved ventilation are inadequate. One crucial piece of the puzzle has remained under the radar, however: busing.

The private-sector union representing some 1,300 school bus drivers in Ontario say the sector is being overlooked in discussions.

“We’re hearing a lot of concerns for classrooms and classroom sizes and physical distancing. And even guidelines that are very different from public health guidelines for the general public, for the education system,” said Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268, noting that such safety measures don’t seem to apply to buses. “A 72-passenger school bus can carry the equivalent of three classrooms, and we’re being told its business as usual. There’s not going to be any application of proper guidelines.”

The union is calling for Premier Doug Ford to take immediate action to help bus drivers and others that work in the industry.

Montgomery said the province isn’t applying even its growing classroom-cohort guidelines – groupings of 50 elementary students could raise to a possible 122, for instance – to transportation of students. She cites one example where a driver reports receiving a manifest of 74 students on the bus route.

While physical distancing is a longstanding part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, there won’t be even a metre of space between students riding the bus, she suggests.

Those attending Waterloo Region District School Board facilities will be required to wear a mask when riding buses, unlike other parts of the province where rules remain unclear. When a positive case of COVID-19 is diagnosed, bus cohorts will be reviewed, as will classroom cohorts in WDRSB schools. The region’s return-to-school plan claims buses will be cleaned frequently, but provides no details.

“There seems to be a hodgepodge of directions by school boards and transportation consortiums as to the new responsibilities of drivers that certainly go way outside what drivers feel they’ve been hired to do, such as the sanitizing of buses [and] giving out facemasks to children,” said Montgomery.

The province has announced they will provide drivers, monitors and student aides with the proper personal protective equipment, but details about the distribution of funding remain unclear. The same applies to payments for additional work drivers will now be required to do.

Drivers still don’t know if they’ll have the authority to deny ridership to students who appear to have symptoms of the virus, said Montgomery, adding that she’s never been able to refuse a student transportation in 30 years of driving.

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, the region’s medical officer of health, has referred questions about such issues to the school boards.

Meanwhile, an organization representing school bus operators says the pandemic and lack of clear protocols have created uncertainty in the industry.

A number of operators are understaffed compared to a typical year, said Nancy Daigneault, executive director of the Ontario School Bus Association (OSBA).

Daigneault said the groups is looking to parents to be patient and help prepare their children for a new busing environment.

“Right now, we’re asking for a little bit of patience while all of this is worked out with the school board. The main thing that the parents will want to know is [that] the students, when they get on the bus, they’re going to have to realize that the bus drivers are going to look different. The younger students might be alarmed, because they’re going to be wearing masks and visors and gloves. That’s number one. So, parents if they could help prepare their children for that. And, number two, that when they get on the bus, there’s going to be assigned seating. And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they all stay in the same seat throughout the year because it’ll be easier for contact tracing if that’s needed going forward.”

Brenmar Transit Limited is now three years into operations. This past year put the company in a difficult situation when services halted due to the pandemic. The company provides transportation to and from school for about 400 to 500 students in the region and beyond.

According to Calvin Knarr, a co-owner/operator, the initial goal of the company was a simple one. “We wanted to be able to try and create affordable transportation for the private school sector.”

As a driver, he said he feels the company has done everything in its best ability to ensure the safety of all students and drivers like himself. The closest contact a driver will have with riders is when a passenger boards the bus or steps off.

Although Brenmar has been able to retain most of their staff during the pandemic, “there’s some that have expressed concern that [if] numbers are going to be going up in the province that they’re going to be more concerned.”

At the beginning of cancellations, Brenmar was unable to provide its staff with funding through the federal government’s Canadian Economic Wage Subsidy as employment levels were not stable enough to guarantee. Instead, layoffs were issued and drivers enrolled in Canadian Economic Response Benefit (CERB).

Knarr notes that routes in the rural and isolated areas is a benefit for Brenmar given the pandemic concerns, as the small-town connection ensures traceability in the event of a positive case.

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