Board says parents may need to take their kids to school as bus driver shortage intensifies

By Kirk Winter

The Trillium Lakelands District School Board has posted to social media that due to the ongoing bus driver shortage parents should be prepared to handle their own transportation needs to and from school if needed.

“Due to our current shortage of qualified school bus drivers,” the board’s social media message began, “any day we (TLDSB) could be without a driver for your child’s route. It is important to make alternative transportation arrangements to get your child to and from school in the event of a cancellation.”

TLDSB superintendent of business, Tim Ellis, had foreshadowed this announcement at the monthly board meeting on Sept. 22 when he spoke extensively about the impending shortage of drivers.

“We are short of drivers and we have already had to cancel a few routes because of sick drivers,” Ellis said.

“By Thanksgiving I expect the driver shortages (due to non-COVID related illnesses) to be much worse,” Ellis added. “I wouldn’t blame drivers one bit for quitting considering the older demographic that most come from.”

“I expect by October we may need to have rolling cancellations of buses  as drivers get ill, “ Ellis speculated.

He said transportation partners were only covering routes now by doubling up on runs and using their qualified office staff.

Unifor, Ontario’s leading school bus driver union, is not surprised the TLDSB announcement, or the dozens of others coming from other school boards across the province.

Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor said publicly that the “health and safety of students and school bus drivers must be the key priority for the Ontario government and school boards.”

“School bus drivers are critical to student transportation and doing so in a safe manner…is of highest concern to these workers,” added Unifor Regional Director Naureen Rizvi.

“School buses are not designated the same as transit buses,” Rizvi continued. “Buses may carry up to 72 primary students with just one passenger access located beside the driver. In many instances the same bus services multiple schools on the same route. Additionally, special-needs passengers often require drivers working closely with riders.”

Unifor has been warning the provincial government and boards since June that many drivers are retirees and the possible exposure to COVID-19 without proper training, social distancing regulations and regular sanitization of buses may prevent them from being able to do their jobs.

“Unifor warned the government early in the summer of a looming shortage of drivers without immediate intervention by the Ford government,” Rizvi stated.

Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268 and a bus driver for over three decades said the Ontario government “has also failed to make driver retention bonus cheques available to qualified school bus drivers from 2019.”

“The payment is given to drivers with near perfect attendance as a payout of $1,000 for the period of September 2019 through December 2019 with payment due March 2020.”

“The next payment period which ran from January 2020 thru to June 2020 was interrupted when schools closed in March. The program administrators have not communicated to the drivers if they will receive pay for either of these periods,” Montgomery added.

Unifor said that many drivers rely on the Driver Retention Program (DRP) to help make ends meet.  Without those twice-a-year bonus payments some drivers have left the industry, contributing to an increased shortage of school bus drivers only made worse by the onset of a pandemic.

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