Bronson Richard has being driving school buses since February 2019. He was sanitizing his big yellow bus on Monday morning when he heard another driver’s query over the dispatch radio.
The other driver said that a student who was not wearing a mask was expecting entrance onto a bus. The dispatcher advised the other driver to allow it.
The exchange worried Richard, 24, who has Type 1 diabetes. He called his supervisor and said he would not be be driving.
“It’s not just a danger to my health, it’s a danger to the community. I want these kids to go to school. But it has to be done in a safe way,” said Richard.
Bus drivers do not have the leeway to refuse service in situations where they feel unsafe, he said.
“I want this to be safe for myself and for other drivers. I don’t want to cause any problems. I just want things to be fixed.”
Across Ontario, concerns about COVID-19 have been colliding with the difficult task of recruiting and retaining school bus drivers.
On Friday, the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA), the consortium that manages bus transportation for Ottawa’s English public and Catholic schools, said 30 routes would be cancelled on Monday and for the foreseeable future.
An additional seven routes were cancelled over the weekend and on Monday morning, said the consortium’s general manger, Vicky Kyriaco.
“We expected the driver shortage to worsen over the weekend, and it did to the degree we expected,” said Kyriaco. “We couldn’t anticipate which drivers would quit nor which routes would be affected, however.”
OSTA is short more than 100 drivers. Consortium du transport scolaire d’Ottawa, which manages buses for the French boards, is short between 10 and 15 drivers. The French boards had delays on Monday, but no cancellations, said Patrick Pharand, the director of transportation.
Every driver has different circumstances and must make the best decision for their health, said Kyriaco.
“Some drivers are more risk-averse than others, or need to take greater precautions than others.”
Masks are strongly recommended for students in kindergarten to Grade 3, and mandated for students in Grades 4 to 12.
“However, like anyone else, kids may have a condition that makes wearing a mask difficult and they may be exempt,” said Kyriaco. “We ask that drivers pick up all students for their safety, rather than leaving them without supervision. ”
Bert van Ingen has a different concern. He has been driving buses for the French language school boards since Sept. 3. Some schools are using buses as “holding pens” for students, he said.
“They go to all this trouble to socially distance kids, then they put them on a bus and make them wait. You might as well tell them to gather in the gym, take off their masks and jump up and down,” said van Ingen.
Sometimes, students are waiting on buses for 20 minutes or more, he said. “We’re essentially a free daycare.”
Students should assemble where distancing can be practised and only be brought out to buses at the very last minute. “As long as the bus is moving, kids will stay seated. You have to minimize the time kids spend waiting for the bus to move,” he said.
“For the past week and a half I’ve been spending more time stationary in bus loading zones than actually driving the route.”
Van Ingen, 67, has been a school bus driver since 2014. He is paid about $18 an hour but says he is paid according to a computer-generated route that predicts the time he will spend on the road, not the actual time spent.
He also gets paid for 70 minutes’ worth of work to cover fuelling and commuting to and from his first and last stops of the day and cleaning the bus. He disinfects his bus by misting the seats and the lower windows with the contents of a spray bottle supplied by his employer. After every run, he mists the handrails.
Van Ingen drives about 170 kilometres a day. It takes about 24 litres of gas to cover 100 kilometres for his 10-seat bus that fits 20 high school students or 30 elementary students. This year, even though he has been traveling his full route, his bus has been about a quarter full, he said.
Pharand said he has heard of only one incident of students waiting on a bus and that situation has been corrected.
“Schools are not to leave students on buses,” he said.
For his part, Van Ingen said students on his secondary route on Monday were on the bus for 15 minutes before the bus departed. His elementary students were on the bus for 21 minutes before it left the school.
Van Ingen said he’s not afraid he’ll lose his job for speaking out. He has no chronic illnesses, but he’s vulnerable because of his age.
“Bus drivers are a pretty timid bunch. But I’m at the point where I can say, ‘I don’t need this job. Fix it.’ ”
Kyriaco believes there will continue to be problems hiring and retaining bus drivers. The biggest issue is that driving a school bus is a part-time job and is compensated as a part-time job. As it stands, most bus drivers are either retirees or young people with children.
“To have a consistent, stable driver pool, you need a living wage. You need to be able to support your family and pay your rent,” she said.
The province has recently renewed a driver retention program designed to encourage driver attendance so drivers don’t call in sick or book off. After six months, drivers qualify for a $1,000 bonus to a maximum of $2,000 a year.
“The issue we’re facing right now isn’t about money. It’s about health and safety,” said Kyriaco. “Our drivers are in a vulnerable age group.”
The province’s plan for reopening schools includes guidance on student transportation measures, said Ingrid E. Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education. The province is spending $110 million to enhance health and safety measures for school buses and school bus driver retention and recruitment.
“School boards may use their allocated funding for more routes to reduce the number of students on school buses to support physical distancing, address programming needs, as well as for enhanced cleaning protocols.”
Kyriaco anticipates some drivers will come back in the next few months. In the coming weeks, the job will be stabilizing the system, making minor consolidations on some routes and bringing back cancelled routes where possible.
“We are absolutely grateful to the drivers who came today. They’re our heroes.”