Officials are warning that school bus driver shortages and resulting delays and cancellations that often plague the start of the school year are being exacerbated by the pandemic, and may continue well into the fall semester in some areas of Ontario.
In Ottawa, nearly 2,500 students are currently affected, and the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority said it may take months to fully resolve a shortage of drivers.
Part of the problem is COVID-19, said Nina Camilleri, the authority's communication coordinator.
"A large percentage of our drivers were retirees, some of whom decided not to continue because they were fearful of being in contact with children and the public," she said.
The Toronto Student Transportation Group, which provides transportation services to Catholic and public school boards, said nearly 50 out of 1,800 routes are without drivers, which is directly impacting nearly 1,500 of 45,000 students.
Kevin Hodgkinson, the group's general manager, couldn't give an estimate on how long the issues might last.
In the meantime, taxi services are being used as an alternative method of transportation “on a daily basis,” Hodgkinson said, though he didn’t provide the number of taxis or the students using them because he said it fluctuates everyday.
“It is an option for the parents, if they want their child to get to school on time,” Hodgkinson said.
It is a short-term solution to make sure students are not delayed for school, he said, and the transportation group has no intention to use them once its contracting operators have enough drivers for the buses.
Some drivers who are retirees are very concerned about COVID-19 and not willing to work right now, he said.
"We have seen a number of them that are on what we consider leave of absences so that they're...waiting to come back," Hodgkinson said.
"They're waiting to ensure that they don't get sick going forward and they don't make their family sick as well."
In Waterloo, Ont., the school board announced that it is cancelling some of its routes, experiencing delays of 50 minutes or greater, until December due to driver shortages.
Affected families can find an alternative transportation method for their children or do remote learning, the board said last week.
In Hamilton, there were 68 average daily delays in the morning, and 85 in the afternoon in the first week of school, according to Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Hamilton-Wentworth Student Transportation Services said that its operators were 19 drivers short earlier this week — not including the spare and occasional drivers.
Nancy Daigneault, Executive Director of School Bus Ontario, a non-profit association advocating for bus operators in the province, called shortages “serious” in Toronto, Ottawa, Peterborough, and some other parts of the Greater Toronto Area, blaming the government for not providing sufficient funding to the school transportation system.
She said drivers are quitting because of the pay.
“The drivers are highly qualified. They have a lot more training than public transit drivers. And yet they get paid less," she said.
The Ministry of Education said the student transportation grant is projected to be around $1.1 billion this year, an increase of $28 million over last year.
As well, a retention pilot program, through which eligible drivers could receive up to $2,000 in bonus payments, has been extended for this school year with an investment of around $40 million, the ministry said, and there will be additional funding for boards to deal with high gas prices.
“We have increased investment to the highest level in Ontario history and extended the Driver Retention Program that provides wage enhancements 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 that the government needs to do more.
She called the decision to use taxis to shuttle school children in Toronto “unfortunate,” saying she doubts taxi drivers have the same certifications and training as school bus drivers before they are allowed to transport the “most precious cargo, 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 is working on both short-term and long-term solutions to the shortages, it said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2022.