A bus driver shortage has lead to the cancellation of 40 First Student school bus routes in Peterborough, Northumberland and Clarington.
Most of those routes were cancelled for the day on Monday, but that has been updated to the rest of this week.
“We continued to have that issue where they had a lot of drivers leave and they haven’t had a lot of time to do much to cover with the spares they have, which weren’t enough,” said Joel Sloggett, chief administrative officer for Student Transportation Services of Central Ontario (STSCO).
“They’re working on a plan to introduce more drivers to the system. They have other drivers elsewhere that they will hopefully bring into our system next week, but that will need to be confirmed. We’ll know more on Friday.”
While that isn’t set in stone, parents are being encouraged to find alternate means to get their children to and from school should the routes remain cancelled.
“This is a different year than years past. We may have had a one or two driver issue here or there, but nothing like this,” Sloggett added. “Parents need to have a contingency to put in action.”
Sloggett told Global News Peterborough that First Student has said no more than 40 routes will be cancelled unless something unforeseen happens.
Citing confidentiality with the employers and employees, he couldn’t say why the drivers have quit or retired.
“60 per cent of drivers are retirees,” said Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268.
“People aren’t willing to risk their lives for this job. They loved what they did, but drivers in some areas of this province have been fighting for PPE. They’re not getting the proper PPE or getting it in-time. It’s a ticking time bomb. People aren’t willing to take the risk for a low-paying job without benefits.”
Wednesday marked the first full day of school for students in the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board.
Those students were previously in a staggered start for classes, while students in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board remain in a staggered start pattern until Friday.
All of the buses that have been cancelled affect approximately 1,600 students within both of those boards.
“It is disappointing. I feel the frustration and I know the parents have expected and hoped for better. All I can do is apologize for the disruption to service and reassure people that we are working on a solution with the company. If we can’t solve everything, we’ll have to look at other options and work with the school board on other methods.”
Sloggett said that could mean doubling up buses and having staggered starts to school days for multiple drop-offs, but added that wasn’t ideal at all.
He said STSCO has talked with other companies about possibly taking on the First Student routes, but also added those companies have all drivers working so First Student remains the first option.
The issue has left some parents scrambling to find options to get their children to school with no busing.
Renee Mintz, a mother of three in Cobourg, Ont., said her oldest has a bus to a Cobourg high school, but her two younger children have no bus for the rest of the week.
“On Tuesday, my youngest, it was his second day of school. On Monday, we had the bus his first day. Everything was normal and pick up was fine,” she said.
“I woke up and checked the list on Tuesday morning and everything was fine. My other son was going back that day. So we were waiting outside, and at about 9:15 a.m., I called the school. They said that they just got word the bus was cancelled this morning. Nobody emailed me or called us. So I had to deal with my son having a meltdown before school because that was a big cut into his routine. My youngest is special needs, so routine is important.”
Mintz said this created an inconvenience for her as she doesn’t drive and babysits other children during the day.
“I did have to walk and get them after school. Thankfully, my daughter came home and helped watch those two kids, while I walked over to get my son. Every day is going to be a, ‘how do we get them there today and how do we get them home?’ My husband also works nights.”
Mintz says she sympathizes with the bus companies and drivers, noting that this isn’t easy for anyone and hopes a solution will be found sooner rather than later.
Global News Peterborough has repeatedly sent emails to First Student for comment on this matter, but has not received a reply by Wednesday morning.
STSCO is encouraging parents to check its website every morning and evening for the latest on bus cancellations.
A full list can be found here.