A school board in southwestern Ontario was forced to cancel a cross-country meet planned for 8,000 students this week due to "a major shortage" of bus drivers.
Linda Steel, chair of the London District Catholic School Board, said Friday the cancellation of the district-wide event for grades 4 to 8, which was to be held over five days at Regina Mundi Catholic College, was a huge blow to the community.
"Everybody's disappointed. This is not the way we want to see things happen," Steel said.
The bus driver shortage is also limiting the London, Ont., board's ability to plan other extracurricular events, Steel said, and as a result it is now giving many months' notice to transportation companies to try to secure drivers.
"We have put in requests months and months ahead now to let the student transportation services know that on these days, we're going to be having dancefest, gymfest and track and field," she said. "So hopefully, with major advance notice, they'll be able to get drivers in for those events."
Officials from transportation groups in the province recently warned that school bus driver shortages were being exacerbated by the pandemic and could continue well into the fall semester in some areas.
The shortage comes as extracurricular activities resume at schools in Ontario after two years of disruptions due to the pandemic. Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have both touted the importance of sports teams and clubs for students in recent months.
Meanwhile, the Toronto District School Board appealed Friday for volunteer drivers for a cross-country meet that is scheduled to take place next week, saying it has not been able to get a bus to transport students in grades 4 to 6.
Nancy Daigneault, executive director of School Bus Ontario, a non-profit association advocating for bus operators in the province, said the school bus driver shortage across Ontario is "severe."
"It’s been a problem for years. It’s been made worse by COVID and soaring inflation," she said. "The job is split shift, part time and seasonal and attracts retirees. When COVID hit, many decided to stop driving completely."
Daigneault said high inflation, fixed contracts and low pay have all factored into the lack of available drivers.
"Operators have increased driver pay in the last two years, but the province needs to allocate more in funding to alleviate the crisis," said Daigneault.
The Ministry of Education has said it is spending an unprecedented amount of money on student transportation, with a projected grant of about $1.1 billion this year, an increase of $28 million from last year.
It has also extended a retention pilot program, through which eligible drivers could receive up to $2,000 in bonus payments, for this school year in an effort to provide reliable transportation.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022.
Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press