Policymakers have placed considerable effort into finding ways to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in those classrooms that re-open in September, but not as much related to the buses that deliver the students.
Many boards are implementing measures such as isolating students in one particular classroom, no shared lunch facilities, staggered recesses, no extracurricular activities or sports and the like to reduce mingling. Yet students who rely on school buses to deliver them to school may find themselves riding without the same careful supervision of social distancing and with students from other classes or from other schools. On a school bus, all the risks of a classroom and commuter transit could come bundled together.
Ontario’s back-to-school plan included assigned seating for possible contact tracing, with students from the same household or classroom grouped together, twice daily cleaning, mandatory masks for grades 4 to 12 students, sanitizer on board and PPE for drivers. Like many other provinces, it included a request that parents arrange separate transportation if possible, a step that could divide parents into groups of “cans and cannots”.
Those changes place more responsibilities on school bus drivers, a workforce comprised of a lot of seniors and part-time mothers, working at or near minimum wage. It’s already a job with a large yearly turnover, and union representatives anticipated that many members won’t want to return to driving this September.
Debbie Montgomery, President of Unifor Local 4268, which represents about 1,300 Ontario drivers, said that many drivers have expressed concern about the inadequacy of safety measures and the extra responsibilities. In banks and grocery stores, workers are protected by distancing and plexiglass barriers, and limited assembly.
“For the school system, they changed all the rules,” Montgomery said. “If drivers are not comfortable that their health and welfare aren’t being looked after, they’ll hang up their keys.”
Nancy Daigneault, head of the Ontario School Bus Association, said its member operators were generally pleased by the government measures, and agreed there would be more stress placed on drivers.
“We understand there are some who won’t want to come back,” she said,” Daigneault said. “We will know more in the coming weeks. We know some drivers are looking for additional information about protections.”
Daigneault said school bus operators viewed government commitments to providing PPE for drivers and $40 million in funding for cleaning as large positives. She said her organization consulted with the education and transportation ministries while the program was designed.
Montgomery questioned how bus drivers could be expected to maintain the rules around seating, mask wearing, plus do the twice daily disinfecting.
“For the first week, they are probably going to be wonderful. Then they will be children again. They will hop seats,” she said. “Masking? How do we enforce that? Do I have to help them put on the masks? And I know drivers will say ‘I wasn’t hired to disinfect. I was hired to drive.’ You’re asking predominantly seniors to spend time doing that.“
Daigneault said: “We’ll be telling the drivers, ‘do the best you can’.”