How safe will buses be?

By Kirk Winter

Rumours that “Bus companies have no plan for back to school” are misleading and must sound scary for parents, said Greg Hammond. He owns Kawartha Lakes Bus Lines and is a senior executive with School Bus Ontario, the lobby group that represents most school carriers in Ontario.

“What exactly the plan looks like I am not able to say,” Hammond added during an interview in mid-August, “but parents can be assured that it will be a good, safe and workable plan.

“We have been considering all the different contingencies. School boards and school bus operators have been in constant conversation. We will get the kids to school safely,” he promised.

The province announced minimum standards for school buses at the end of July. They recommend students be assigned seats and sit with people from their household or classroom cohort. The standards stipulate that the driver will receive PPE, the seat behind them will be left empty, and that the windows should be left open when possible.

In normal times, Kawartha Lakes Bus Lines fields a fleet of approximately 130 buses responsible for delivering elementary and secondary students in TLDSB to the school of their choice.

Pre-COVID, buses were limited to 48 riders who were in Grade 6 and older, or 72 students in the kindergarten to Grade 5 age range.

Although boards close to Kawartha Lakes reported a worrying shortage of bus drivers for September, according to conversations with local drivers, Hammond says his company worked hard to recruit and train people. “We hope we are not short drivers.”

The Trillium Lakelands board surveyed parents in August to determine how many children would be going back to school in person. (The separate school board likewise asked parents to declare their intentions.)The bus company had to wait for those results before it made its hiring decisions.

With a reported average age of 62, according to a Teamsters Canada rep, Ontario bus drivers fall into the category of those who will be hit harder if they were to contract COVID-19.

Other jurisdictions have floated proposals requiring multiple bus cleanings a day, something Hammond suggested was “a reasonable expectation.”

He added, “Enhanced cleaning costs money in cleaning products, time and labour. It is going to be something we will be looking at closely.”

As of the Advocate’s press time, there did not appear to be any COVID-based restrictions on the number of students allowed on a bus.

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