The COVID-19 pandemic is placing Ontario's already precarious school bus industry under additional strain, parents and advocates argued amid mounting reports of masse route cancellations and overcrowded vehicles.
They said Wednesday that the growing list of problems, emerging just two days into the province's return to school, come on top of a long-standing bus driver shortage across Ontario and are compounding a situation that was troubling long before the global outbreak.
Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268 which represents bus drivers, said the full picture of driver retention and recruitment is still taking shape.
But she said lack of clarity around safety protocols and access to personal protective equipment has contributed to the situation unfolding across the province.
"Now we're hearing that routes are just being cancelled. There's nothing else they can do," Montgomery said in a telephone interview.
"They can't attract new people and they can't keep those they had. The vehicle might be there but the operator is not."
Twelve bus routes were cancelled in both the Grey-Bruce and Thunder Bay regions as of Wednesday.
In Sudbury, Ont., the student services consortium announced Monday that 23 routes will not run for at least the first week of school because not enough drivers returned to work.
Providers cited the pandemic and related health concerns as reasons for keeping drivers off the job.
"The school bus industry has been struggling with a driver shortage for more than five years and the global COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem for this school year," Student Transportation Services of Thunder Bay said in a statement.
The statement said the average age of a bus driver in the area is 57, with some in their 70s, and many drivers have decided to remain off the job due to age-related health risks from COVID-19.
"We respect their right to make this decision regarding their safety," the statement read. "Unfortunately, we are now faced with the unfortunate situation of having to suspend some bus routes at the start of the school year."
Montgomery said around 60 per cent of bus drivers are over the age of 60 and many are feeling pressure from their families who argue a job paying between $16 and $20 per hour is not worth the health risk.
"When you can't feel confident in your protection, that's huge," she said. "Every day, there's at least another person saying, 'I can't risk this.'"
The cancellations come weeks after the union raised concerns over driver well-being and called for better health and safety guidance for the industry.
Montgomery said the union's requests, including calls for greater compensation for new duties like taking attendance and making sure kids stay in their assigned seats, have not been addressed.
A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce pointed to $100 million in funding the ministry has committed for various aspects of transportation to schools during the pandemic, including protective equipment for drivers and driver recruitment.
"We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect the health and safety of Ontario's students and education staff," spokeswoman Caitlin Clark said in an statement.
Brandi Gowan, a mother in the Bruce County area, said the uncertainty around transportation is making a challenging back-to-school year even more difficult.
"Families are already feeling stress ... from the pandemic, stress around job security and stress from sending their child back to school, and now we have to worry about busing and whether we have anyone to look after or drive our children into school," Gowan said in an email.
Busing has posed challenges as classes resume across the country, with concerns raised about physical distancing on packed routes and drivers on strike in Winnipeg this week.
Regulations vary across provinces and school boards. Some governments such as Quebec have introduced limits on the number of students allowed on a bus.
New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and British Columbia are allowing for barriers between the drivers and passengers. A similar precaution has not been guaranteed in Ontario, sparking concern among drivers, Montgomery said.
Parents have been encouraged to arrange rides for their children to address the space shortage, but it isn't an option for all families, especially those with a long commute to school.
And even for families with operational bus routes, sending kids off on a bus and into the classroom has been an emotional transition.
Jennifer McLean, a mother based in the central Ontario community of Oro-Medonte, Ont., her Grade 10 daughter texted from the bus Wednesday morning reporting that little had changed on her route, where she was seated centimetres away from another rider.
With health issues preventing her from driving her child to school, McLean said the initial reports are scary as their small family bubble grows "exponentially" with the return to class.
"I hugged her goodbye this morning and she knows that she can't hug me when she comes home," she said. "We don't know how to deal with this."