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COVID-19 fears and extra training to blame for school bus driver shortage in Edmonton

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 fears, extra training to blame for school bus driver shortage in Edmonton' COVID-19 fears, extra training to blame for school bus driver shortage in Edmonton
A bus driver shortage has led to delays for some Edmonton students on their routes. As Kendra Slugoski explains, bus companies say COVID-19 fears, the CERB extension and lengthy training are to blame. – Sep 8, 2020

Edmonton Public Schools is warning parents and students to expect school bus delays on some routes this week and is asking parents to drive their children to school if possible.

In a message to parents on School Zone, the district said yellow school bus companies are experiencing “a shortage of drivers.”

Those delays may last throughout September and many routes posted delays of up to 60 minutes on Tuesday morning; one route had a delay of 90 minutes.

Edmonton Public Schools said approximately 30 yellow bus routes were delayed Tuesday morning.

The district said its bus companies are working to minimize disruptions but delays are due to “drivers covering routes they may not be familiar with and a shortage of drivers due to having to stay home for health reasons.”

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Read more: ‘It’s a nervous energy’: Edmonton students head back to school amid COVID-19 pandemic

Laura Doroshenko, general manager for Cunningham Transport, said a week before in-person classes started, 22 drivers called on one day to report they were not coming back.

Doroshenko said many of those drivers are young moms or semi-retired and feared for their safety as well as their family’s health.

Click to play video: 'School bus drivers raise concerns over COVID-19' School bus drivers raise concerns over COVID-19
School bus drivers raise concerns over COVID-19 – Aug 25, 2020

“We were faced with the impossibility of trying to cover these runs and service,” said Doroshenko, “pick up kids and get them to school on time on the first day of school. We couldn’t do it. It didn’t happen.”

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Cunningham Transport provides drivers for 186 routes to schools in and around Edmonton. Office staff, including Doroshenko, have had to fill in.

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Cory Sandstra, general manager for Southland Transportation‘s Northern Alberta division, said the bus company started recruiting drivers in early June when the province allowed driving training schools to reopen.

Sandstra said a number of factors have led to its driver shortage, which include “anxiety related to COVID-19 exposure, the extension of CERB, and last-minute resignations.”

Lori Nagy with Edmonton Catholic Schools said Tuesday some of its bus routes have also had delays, but the district is hoping its carriers will fill its driver positions by the end of the month.

READ MORE: ‘I feel for parents’ — Dr. Hinshaw regrets confusing COVID-19 orders as schools reopen

Edmonton Public Schools has four contracted school bus companies which include Southland, Cunningham, Golden Arrow and Stock Transportation.

The other roadblock is a lengthy and costly new training program implemented by the provincial government, Doroshenko said.

Mandatory Entry-Level Training, or MELT, was brought in by the province on March 1, 2019 for all Class 1 and Class 2 driver’s licences.

Read more: Driver shortage, new training program blamed for Calgary school bus delays

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Doroshenko said Cunningham will train drivers, but the course takes more than 50 hours to complete, which means up to three weeks of in-class and driving training, plus the testing.

“It takes a lot of time. I know it’s a part-time job. You’ve got to really love kids and want to do this job.”

Also new this fall is a mandatory bus driver requirement called the “S” endorsement or The School Bus Driver Improvement Program. The program came into effect July 31, 2020 and specifically covers school bus safety.

Click to play video: 'To take the school bus or not' To take the school bus or not
To take the school bus or not – Aug 21, 2020

Cunningham and Southland said their drivers are following proper COVID-19 protocols to protect students and the drivers.

Both companies stressed they are hiring and to check out their websites for additional information.

Until the driver positions are filled, Doroshenko is also asking parents for their patience.

“When the office staff and management staff have to go out and drive, that means less people fielding phone calls in the office,” Doroshenko said.

“We’ll be working hard to get these positions filled and hopefully people will come forward and want to work.”

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