OTTAWA -- The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) says yellow school buses will not be ready for the first day of school.

In a conference call Monday, the transportation authority said yellow bus transportation is still in the planning phase, and they need time to plan routes and give parents time to review the routes.

Yellow bus service will begin Monday, Sept. 14, more than a week after some students return to class.

The first day of school in both the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board is Sept. 3, but both boards are planning for staggered starts. Many students will be returning to class on the week of Sept. 7, according to the Ottawa Catholic School Board.

Start times for the OCDSB have not yet been released, but start dates will be staggered over the two weeks between Sept. 3 and Sept. 17.

The OSTA's van service will be ready for the start of the school year, said OSTA General Manager Vicky Kyriaco.

"Some of the students are going to be able to start. Any students that have been assigned to OC Transpo for example in Gr. 7 to 12 they’ll still get their Presto cards. OC Transpo has confirmed they’re going to have the service ready for the school start up,” Kyriaco added.

The OSTA says part of the reason for the delay is that they must go through the results of a survey asking how many students will be taking the school bus. That information will determine bus loads and bus routes. Some routes may be longer or shorter and some routes may have to be cancelled.

Kyriaco says OSTA should have bus route information online for parents on Sept. 7.

About 5,500 students have opted out of school bus transportation.

Kyriaco said their goal this fall is to provide more physical distancing, by only having one student per bench on the school bus but, depending on loads and routes, that may not be possible.

Under assigned seating plans, students from the same household or who are classmates in the same cohort may be required to sit together.

Masks are mandatory on the school bus for students in grades 4 to 12 and recommended for students from kindergarten to grade 3.

There will be no dividers between the bus drivers and the students. The OSTA says there is no room to build them and they have not been crash tested. Drivers will be asked to wear masks when students are getting on and off the bus, but they are not mandatory while driving.

The OSTA says school bus operators are hiring drivers and there are numerous drivers in training right now. The operators tell OSTA they have enough drivers but as loads and routes change, or if people get sick, there could be a shortage.

OSTA released a list of guidelines earlier this month, which includes mask use and assigned seating.

There has been no indiciation yet of any delayed start to school bus service from the Consortium de transport scolaire d'Ottawa, which serves French-language boards. 

'It takes effort on everyone's part': Epidemiologist's advice to parents

An Ottawa epidemiologist says it will take effort on the part of the community and vigilance from adults to keep COVID-19 cases low not only in schools but also throughout the community, in order to reduce the risk of transmission on the school bus and in schools in general.

Dr. Rayway Deonandan told CTV Morning Live on Monday morning that the best way to protect children from getting COVID-19 is to keep the overall rate of transmission in the community low.

"Everybody else in the community has to do their part: we have to wear a mask and we have to socially distance, even if we haven't got kids or work in a school," he said. "Number two, the most important way to keep kids safe is physical distancing. On a school bus, that means as much space in between kids as possible. If you can't then, you put something in the way like a mask or a face shield."

Deonandan says he recommends children wear both masks and face shields while on the bus to help reduce the risk of transmission further.

All school boards in Ottawa requires families to screen their children for COVID-19 symptoms and keep them home if they are symptomatic, but Denonandan says there is no way to make school buses entirely risk-free.

"It's possible to lower the risk; we can't eliminate the risk," he said. "It's important to remember that, overall, across the province, the overwhelming number of kids and families will be just fine. The probability of encountering someone with the disease and then getting it from someone with the disease is really quite low. The risk here is that schools can be accelerators of the pandemic. When you scale this up to tens of thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of kids, someone is going to get it and we have to prevent that handful of cases from becoming outbreaks."

Deonandan says if parents are able to drive their kids to school that can help reduce the overall numbers on buses for families who don't have any alternatives, but he doesn't want anyone to fell compelled.

"I'm reticent to say [drive your kids to school] because of the ecological impacts and the stress on families," he said. "I don't want people going into further debt an upturning their lives for this but, in general, yeah, if we can keep the number of kids in the school bus low, that will help."

Deonandan believes all children should be required to wear masks on the bus, regardless of age, but cautions that enforcement should be light-handed.

"Kids, especially small kids, won't be able to do it well. They're going to fidget, they're going to touch their face, that's okay," he said. "The goal here isn't perfection, it's just getting more people to behave responsibly and mitigate transmission. A handful of kids won't be able to, for medical purposes, and we have to make accommodations for those kids, but there's no reason not to attempt to make this more widespread and common.