'Biggest concern is absenteeism': School bus companies worried about cancellations due to potential driver illness
When school returns in-person Monday, school bus companies across the province are worried about potential driver shortages due to the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
"The biggest concern of course, is going to be absenteeism," says Nancy Daigneault, executive director of School Bus Ontario.
"We won't know until next week, it's a really day-by-day sort of thing because drivers are going to be calling in if they're sick. We don't know what that rate is going to be, but we anticipate it'll be higher as the school week goes on."
With a five to 10 per cent cent driver shortage across the province, parents are being asked to check their local bus websites to ensure their child has a driver that day.
"It's a day-to-day concern we have as bus operators," says Rob Murphy, vice-president of Murphy Bus Lines which services Southwestern Ontario. "We're doing wellness checks with the drivers to make sure they're ready for Monday but someone could test positive and then we would be short drivers. All parents and students should continue to monitor the local consortium websites for delays and cancellations for next week"
That same concern goes for the drivers behind the wheel.
"Most of us are retired and a lot of us are in our 70s, so it's concerning for us to try and keep as safe as we can," says Nancy Bieber, who is in her 38th year driving bus in Lucan, Ont. "I feel safe because Murphy's is doing everything they can to keep us safe. They give us the gloves and the masks and they are giving us the new N95 masks. They'll be on our bus when we get there Monday."
What they won't have when they return to work Monday is Rapid Antigen Tests. The province is giving two tests to each child, but the bus drivers won't have them immediately.
"They gave them to the kids to test but they didn't give them the bus drivers and I think would be helpful," says Bieber. "If we're not feeling good in the morning we could take a test. Murphy's does have some at the office but if we could do it at home that would be better."
Rob Murphy says the tests are coming, adding, "We will get them hopefully next week from our local consortium and get them into the hands of the drivers as soon as possible."
When it comes to protocols on the bus, Murphy says they will take the same approach as the last time the buses were running.
"All drivers will sanitize their bus once in the morning after their bus routes and then once in the afternoon after their bus routes."
The seat behind the driver will also be kept empty for airflow and for the safety of all. Some areas and bus companies are opening windows when the weather dictates.
"That is the plan for better ventilation but with -15 or -20 degree weather, those windows are frozen," says Murphy. "So we're not going to get much ventilation through the bus."
Bieber, who has had two COVID-19 positive children on her bus during the pandemic, is ready to get back behind the wheel come Monday. She's never contracted the virus, but at least with previous contact tracing, she knew when one of the students were ill.
"They told us before when we had a case, but they don't tell you who it is," says Bieber. "They just say you have a case on your bus, which I think they should continue doing."
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