New training requirements for entry-level school bus drivers in Alberta were supposed to take effect on Friday but instead, the province’s education minister announced he was pushing back their implementation amid concerns raised by some school boards.
“After feedback from school boards, we have delayed implementation until July 31 — giving them the necessary time to prevent driver shortages,” David Eggen said in a statement issued to Global News on Friday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Elk Island Public Schools — a school division located east of Edmonton — issued a news release in which it said it supports the new driver training measures and the goal of improving student safety.
However, it added that “there are aspects of the new requirement that concern officials at EIPS.”
The new training requirements were introduced in the wake of last April’s deadly bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team in Saskatchewan. As a result of the crash, Alberta moved to bring in more extensive training for drivers of semi-trucks and commercial buses.
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“EIPS already ensures all of its bus operators receive comprehensive, ongoing training-and our safety record speaks for itself,” said Trina Boymook, the board chair for EIPS. “With the imposition of MELT (Mandatory Entry Level Training), school boards are now tasked with finding additional dollars in already strained budgets to train new regular and substitute drivers.”
EIPS said it expects MELT to cost the school board, which has over 17,000 students in its schools, an additional $77,000 a year, “a cost that will likely draw from funds allocated to the classroom.”
“The combination of a lack of funding and a small pool of already-qualified drivers could result in a province-wide driver shortage,” EIPS said. “If fewer drivers are available, EIPS will have to cut bus routes, resulting in longer bus ride times and fuller buses.
“As well, reliability of service may suffer when regular drivers are on leave and there aren’t enough substitute drivers to call upon.”
Boymook said she’s worried about longer commutes for students and more crowded buses.
Eggen said he is always open to discuss “funding pressure with school boards.”
“It’s another expense for school boards,” said Lorrie Jess, president of the Alberta School Boards Association. “It’s around $5,000 a driver to train them. It involves a lot of time — it’s 40 hours in the classroom and 15 hours in the yard without a vehicle moving and then 57 hours behind the wheel.