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London, Ont. feels effects of provincewide school bus shortage

On Tuesday, Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) trustees were informed during a special board meeting that some routes in and around London, Ont., could experience disruptions this year. Olivia O'Malley / Global News

Local bus cancellations due to a shortage of drivers may be unavoidable ahead of the upcoming school year, according to transportation officials.

On Tuesday, Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) trustees were informed during a special board meeting that some routes in and around London, Ont., could experience disruptions this year.

“We can’t control what happens,” said Lori Ann Pizzalato, chair of the TVDSB. “We’re hopeful that we have enough bus drivers as well and that’s what Student Transportation Services (STS) has said, but you never know.”

Les Cross, regional manager for Student Transportation of Canada (STC), which owns Elgie Bus Lines, said all local routes have been staffed, but the shortage in London centres on very few spare drivers available.

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“We’ve been very busy all summer, recruiting, hiring, training, and we are in a position today where we have every route covered, which is where we’d like to be every year,” he said. “Where we fall down this year is we usually have a contingent of spare drivers that are sitting, ready to go out if someone’s sick and can’t come to work.

“We don’t have the built-up number of spare drivers available,” he continued. “So as soon as there’s any kind of a problem — a rise in COVID cases, that type of thing — that’s where we’re going to struggle.”

The school board says if there is a rise in driver absences caused by COVID-19 or any other illness and circumstance, parents are then responsible for getting their children to school.

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Cross said that, in typical years, STC aims to have a five per cent spare ratio.

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“We operate 165 routes here locally, so we would usually like to have eight to 10 spares, you know, sitting every day ready to go and cover off people that call in sick.”

He added that the school board has been working with STC in recruiting additional drivers, noting a large number of applicants are currently in training.

“(But) it could be four or five weeks before we can get them on the road,” Cross said. “That’s a challenge in itself, just the high volume that the ministry is dealing with, they’re probably a little understaffed for the extra work that’s coming their way as well.”

To drive a school bus in Ontario, individuals require either a B Class or an E Class licence approved by the Ministry of Transportation. A Class B licence allows drivers to operate a school bus with seating for more than 24 passengers, while an E Class licence approves seating up to 24 passengers.

However, Cross said that’s all dependent on how the pandemic continues into the cold and flu season.

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“In the fall, we see colds, flus, (but) if we can get enough people through by October, we should be OK, depending how quickly that eighth wave of COVID moves through the system,” he said. “But drawing people into school bus driving has been a challenge for sure.”

As the TVDSB alone prepares to welcome 82,000 students back to school next week, Cross advises parents and students to be patient with drivers and to monitor the MyBigYellowBus app for information about affected routes.

Click to play video: 'Back-to-school safety tips for kids heading back to the classroom'
Back-to-school safety tips for kids heading back to the classroom

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