In about a month, kids across the province will be heading back to school, but it won’t be the normal return as we all know. While boards grapple with what classrooms will look like, so too are school bus operators who are facing a whole new world due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Questions like how many students will be allowed on a bus to whether masks will be required are something school bus companies are currently working on.
To help answer some of those questions, CityNews’ Melissa Duggan spoke with Nancy Daigneault, the executive director of School Bus Ontario.
Melissa Duggan: You must be busy right now.
Nancy Daigneault: It’s crazy busy. Some of the biggest questions right now are how many kids are going to be on each bus. We don’t have the answers to that. What’s happening are the school boards this week are surveying parents to try to find out how many kids are going to be back in the classroom and how many kids are going to be taking the bus. Once we get the surveys back next week, then we’re going to be in a better position to communicate to everybody how many kids will be on the bus.
MD: When a student walks on to a school bus, what will that look like?
ND: When a student walks on the school bus, the driver is going to be wearing a mask, a visor, and is going to be wearing gloves. There will also assigned seating on the bus. We’re going to be letting people know what the assigned seating is. When the school bus starts, the driver will take the visor off. The visor is only there for embarking the bus and getting off. The reason for that is for glare during driving. We are recommending that students wear masks. We know that the protocol from the ministry is grade 4 and up to wear masks and under grade 4 to wear masks if you can. We would like to see everybody wearing masks.
MD: Around this time of year, there is a call-out for new employees. Are you going to have the right number of drivers?
ND: We’re not going to know until we get really, really close to the school date. Driver retention is always an issue. It’s a split shift during the day. Not everybody wants to do that type of work, so it tends to attract a lot of retirees, which is another issue we’re facing. Around 60 per cent of our drivers are over the age of 60, which automatically puts them into a high-risk category for contracting COVID-19. So that’s an additional burden that we’re having to deal with. Obviously we’re doing all the normal things we would normally do to attract drivers. Trying to get as many people trained before the start-up of the school year– 50 hours of work to learn how to drive a school bus, plus a lot of background checks. Throughout the summer, during the lockdowns, there wasn’t an ability to do a lot of that training.
MD: If you have one message for parents and students, what would it be?
ND: We’re doing everything we can possibly do in a COVID-19 environment. Everything is different this year. Every sector in the province is
having issues starting back up, as are we. But we’re taking every precaution possible to ensure the health and safety of the students and drivers, which is always our number one priority.
Editor’s note: The answers have been edited for length and clarity. To watch the complete interview, click on the video at the top of this page.