Shortage of school bus drivers in several Ontario cities set to continue: officials
School bus driver shortages and resulting delays and cancellations, which often affect the start of the school year, are being exacerbated by the pandemic and could continue into the fall semester in some, officials warn. regions of Ontario.
In Ottawa, nearly 2,500 students are currently affected, and the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority said it could take months to fully resolve the driver shortage.
Part of the problem is COVID-19, said Nina Camilleri, the authority’s communications coordinator.
« A large percentage of our drivers were retirees, some of whom decided not to continue because they feared coming into contact with children and the public, » she said.
The Toronto Student Transportation Group, which provides transportation to Catholic and public school boards, said nearly 50 of 1,800 routes are driverless, directly affecting nearly 1,500 of the 45,000 students.
Kevin Hodgkinson, group chief executive, could not give an estimate of how long the problems would last.
In the meantime, taxi services are being used as an alternative means of transport « on a daily basis », Hodgkinson said, although he did not provide the number of taxis or students using them as he said it all fluctuated. days.
« It’s an option for parents, if they want their child to get to school on time, » Hodgkinson said.
It’s a short-term solution to ensure students aren’t delayed for school, he said, and the transportation group has no plans to use them once its subcontracted operators will have enough drivers for the buses.
Some retired drivers are very concerned about COVID-19 and don’t want to work right now, he said.
« We’ve seen a number of them who are on what we consider furloughs so they’re waiting to come back, » Hodgkinson said.
« They’re waiting to make sure they don’t get sick in the future and they don’t make their families sick as well. »
In Waterloo, Ont., the school board announced it was canceling some of its rides, experiencing delays of 50 minutes or more, through December due to a shortage of drivers.
Affected families can find alternative transportation for their children or do remote learning, the council said last week.
In Hamilton, there were 68 average daily delays in the morning and 85 in the afternoon during the first week of school, according to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Hamilton-Wentworth Student Transportation Services said its operators were shorted by 19 drivers earlier this week _ not including reserve and occasional drivers.
Nancy Daigneault, executive director of School Bus Ontario, a nonprofit that advocates for the province’s bus operators, called the shortages « serious » in Toronto, Ottawa, Peterborough and other parts of the region. of Greater Toronto, criticizing the government for not providing sufficient funding to the school transportation system.
She said drivers quit because of salary.
“The drivers are highly qualified. They have a lot more training than transit drivers. And yet they are paid less,” she said.
The Department of Education said the student transportation grant is expected to be about $1.1 billion this year, an increase of $28 million from last year.
Additionally, a retention pilot program, through which eligible drivers could receive up to $2,000 in bonuses, has been extended for this school year with an investment of about $40 million, the ministry said, and it there will be additional funding for councils to cope with high gas prices.
« We have increased investment to the highest level in Ontario’s history and expanded the Driver Retention Program which provides salary increases to school bus drivers, to ensure reliable and safe transportation. for families,” Grace Lee, a spokesperson for the ministry, said in an email. .
But Daigneault said the retention program is not enough and the government needs to do more.
She called the decision to use taxis to transport school children in Toronto « unfortunate », saying she doubts taxi drivers had the same certifications and training as school bus drivers before being allowed to carry the « most precious load, our children ».
The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority and its operators formed a driver recruitment task force in April and launched a driver recruitment campaign, and are working on short- and long-term solutions to shortages, it said. -he declares.