Thousands of Ottawa students affected by school bus driver shortage
The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) is advising parents and caregivers that a school bus driver shortage is causing service disruptions just as kids get back to class.
Students returned to in-person learning Tuesday, though buses were cancelled in the wake of a massive winter storm that pushed schools online Monday.
But the OSTA says they’ve learned that more than 20 drivers are not coming back this week and some are not coming back at all.
“Due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in Ottawa due to Omicron, there will be an increase in service disruptions affecting multiple routes,” the OSTA said. “Over the past weekend, OSTA has learned that over 20+ drivers will not be returning to service, either temporarily or permanently. This will potentially impact 3500-4000 students over and above the students whose routes have already been cancelled.”
The OSTA warned of possible route cancellations when in-person learning resumed, saying last week that they’re expecting drivers will be calling in sick.
"We are doing everything we possibly can to get as much service out on Monday as possible," said Ottawa Student Transportation Authority general manager Vicky Kyriaco in an interview with CTV Morning Live.
"One of the issues that we can't control, of course, is whether drivers are going to be sick or not and everybody has to isolate along the way. So, we are hoping as many as possible will be out on day one."
“The driver shortage has made covering routes with spare drivers difficult for Operators,” the authority said. “OSTA and its Operators work together using a number of strategies to reinstate routes. Long-term solutions are top priority; however, short-term solutions may be used to ensure coverage.”
Kyriaco acknowledged Wednesday that school bus drivers have a difficult job and the OSTA is working to make it as safe as possible.
"We've provided N95 masks, we've provided extra cleaning opportunities so that they can actually keep their bus environment clean, we've got seating plans for the kids to try and keep them in cohorts," she told CTV News Ottawa.
However, cancellations could come in at the last minute, Kyriaco said, but the authority is doing all it can to keep parents informed.
"We've got our daily delay and cancellation page and that's basically reporting those last-minute cancellations. Often times it's because now the driver's ill or they have to isolate, someone in their household has to isolate, and they can't give us a lot of advance warning," Kyriaco said. "What we really want parents to understand is we're providing as much information as possible and they need to go to our website and check our long-term cancellation list, sign-up for e-mail notification and try and get connected to OSTA as much as possible so you can make decisions about how to get to school every day."
BUS DRIVERS FEELING IGNORED
With the rules around how parents are informed about COVID-19 cases in schools changing, some school bus drivers say they’re being left out.
One bus driver, Susan, told Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron that she wasn’t planning to return to driving the bus until the Omicron wave dies down.
“I made the decision after hearing the education minister talk about all the new rules and regulations and this 30 per cent notification, like 30 per cent of the children and teachers have to be absent before they inform anybody,” she said. “During all of this, they never mentioned any bus drivers or our safety. We’re getting kind of tired of being left behind and forgotten.”
The province said it would no longer be tracking positive COVID-19 cases in schools and would instead focus on students and teachers who are absent, making data available starting next week. Parents would be notified of an outbreak if 30 per cent of students and staff from a particular school are absent. In some schools, that could be hundreds of people.
Susan, who did not give her last name on the air, said the pandemic has increased every driver’s workload.
“They’ve lost so many bus drivers and they’ve had to double all the runs. So that means we have loaded buses and we have two schools, double the risk,” she said. “It’s just not safe anymore with this 30 per cent notification. We were never really informed before; it’s going to be even less now.”
Susan said she has an underlying lung condition and no longer feels safe. She’s been driving school buses for seven years.
“When do they start protecting us?” she asked.
She said drivers have been given N95 masks, but hers doesn’t fit her face properly, and the fact that it protrudes out front makes it difficult to drive.
Susan said she would like to see COVID-19 contact tracing resume and bus drivers be informed.
“If there’s a kid that has COVID on one of the other buses, before, they were informed, but now, they’re not informed. I want the day-to-day stuff,” she said.
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