TORONTO — School bus drivers in Ontario say they need guidance from the province and school boards on COVID-19 safety protocols including social distancing, use of face masks and sanitizing routines.
With just a few weeks until the start of the new school year, the drivers, many of whom are retirees, say they still have many questions about what they’re supposed to do when a child on the bus is sick.
“We know how important it is to get kids to school, but we don’t want to be that weak link, don’t want to be responsible for an outbreak or something in our broader based community,” said Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268, which represents the bus drivers.
“We want to get this right and we want to mitigate as many risks as possible.”
Montgomery said provincial regulations don’t allow for Plexiglas to protect drivers, who are being asked to take on more responsibilities such as taking attendance or ensuring that kids keep their masks on.
In some locations, Unifor said that bus drivers have been told they don’t have the right to refuse a ride to a child, even if the student is visibly ill.
With the added risk and responsibility, Montgomery said compensation will be a sticking point moving forward.
She pinned the blame on the Ministry of Education and school boards for not responding to demands that the union put out earlier in the summer.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said his team has been in constant contact with the Ontario School Bus Association and pointed out that the ministry has invested $40 million with school boards and bus operators to ensure that vehicles are cleaned and drivers have PPE.
Montgomery said some drivers have already received manifests with more than 70 students for September and are worried about the lack of social distancing.
“How do I ensure, in rush hour traffic all by myself with 72 kids on that bus, that Johnny is keeping his mask on, Sally isn’t hitting the kid next to her,” said Montgomery.
“Kids are kids, we know that, they’re going to be excited to see their friends back to school… but they can’t sit shoulder to shoulder.”
Some provinces have released more detailed plans around school bus operations. British Columbia and Saskatchewan will allow transparent barriers to be installed for drivers, while New Brunswick will allow curtains for added protection.
Quebec is mandating a maximum of 48 students on each school bus, but is only making masks mandatory for children above elementary school.
Most Canadian provinces are asking parents to bring students to school themselves whenever possible.
Ontario released a school reopening plan weeks ago that will see students return to class in early September.
School boards have been given permission to stagger the start of classes over the first two weeks of the academic year if they need more time to prepare.View link »