More than 100 school bus routes cancelled in Ontario due to driver shortage
WINGHAM, ONT. -- There will a lot of families scrambling to get their kids to school come Monday, because there aren’t enough school bus drivers willing to pilot the “big yellow bus.”
“Possibly Monday we’re looking at 40 routes that could cancelled across the region,” says Rhonda Floriant, operations manager with Montgomery Bus Lines in Wingham.
That was the situation Thursday morning. As of Friday, the number of routes expected to be cancelled has dropped in half.
“At this moment, we’re less than 20, so the number has improved a lot,” says Janice White, who oversees Huron-Perth Student Transportation Services for the public and Catholic school boards in Huron-Perth.
White says the bus driver shortage situation is changing minute-by-minute, and Huron-Perth is far from alone. Twelve to 16 school bus routes have been cancelled every day this week in Grey-Bruce.
White says as many as 65 routes are expected to cancelled Monday in the Hamilton Region. A chronic shortage of bus drivers lasting more than two decades has finally come to a head, thanks to the pandemic.
“Because of COVID-19, and the age demographic of a lot of our drivers, that puts them in a vulnerable category or they’ve got a pre-existing health condition and their doctors have said it’s not safe for them to come back at this time,” says Floriant.
Cancelled bus routes leave parents like Paul Wurdell and Brandi Gowan in quite the predicament.
“A lot of families have both parents working and they’re not available to drop their kids off in the morning and pick them up in the middle of the afternoon, when people are back to work,” says Wurdell, who has two teenage daughters without a ride to school come Monday.
Gowan, a mother of four who lives in Bruce County says, “For me, it seems this back-to-school plan has been built as a cookie cutter plan with a lack of informed decisions when it comes to rural areas. Each community is different, each school is different, each family is different. Not every family has access to reliable internet or the ability to take time off work to drive their kid to school - especially when school is located 45 minutes to one hour away. “
Bus companies say required background checks and medicals are slowing down recruitment efforts.
“We do have drivers that are licensed and are ready to go but we’re waiting on vulnerable-sector checks. Everything with the system is backlogged, and they’re just not being processed in time for us to run routes,” says Floriant.
While some in the school bus industry fear the driver shortage will get worse before it gets better, White is more hopeful the shortage will last weeks, not months.
“I would not say all year, I’m not willing to go down that road. I am hoping that recruitment efforts are fruitful. I know our operators have drivers in training. When they’re through and clear, they’ll be on a bus right away driving students to school,” she says.
As for parents, they’re getting their back up plans ready, as route cancellations are expected to rotate throughout the regions, so not one route is cancelled all the time.
“There’s no back up plan to be had, right now. There is no one else we can rely on to do this. Until this get resolved we’ll have to look at some sort of carpool with our community to get our kids to school,” says Wurdell.