Eganville – With a week to go before the start of school, parents received a troubling notification from the Renfrew County Joint Transportation Consortium (RCJTC) there may not be enough bus drivers to cover all bus routes.
“The RCJTC continues to work collaboratively with the contracted school bus operators to find solutions to lessen the impact of the current situation,” the email, which was sent Monday, stated. “Families on the initially affected routes will be notified via email within the next two days if their route will not be serviced due to the driver shortage.”
Two confirmed routes which are cancelled with an anticipated return to service as “to be determined” are to Herman Street Public School and Bishop Smith Catholic High School.
The issue of a shortage of bus drivers is nothing new, however, the immediacy of the problem has left some parents concerned they will have to find an alternate method to get their student to school.
“I am so disappointed,” Renfrew County District Catholic School Board Chair Bob Schreader said. “I’m really concerned. Our students have had two years of interrupted education with COVID and now we are hit with this.”
The board held a meeting on Monday night and they were notified of the crisis, which he said affects some 500 students across both boards.
“They are eligible for busing and don’t have drivers,” he said.
The shortage of drivers was not unexpected, he noted, adding there was already a shortage of drivers last year.
“And unless we get drivers, we can’t run the routes,” he said. “The operators have done everything humanly possible to attract drivers.”
Mr. Schreader said the board is very cognizant this is a tremendous hardship for students and parents.
“I knew there was a problem, but I did not know it was as bad as it was,” he added. “I was taken aback.”
While the various bus operators in the county have been working hard to find drivers and continue to do so, he said the short notice is a very challenging situation for families. Being notified so close to the start of the school year is also concerning, he admitted.
“I wish this would have come out a month ago,” he said.
However, the issue is not only in Renfrew County, but province-wide, he stressed.
“We are certainly raising this with the ministry (Ministry of Education),” he added.
The issue for the RCCDSB is perhaps also compounded by the fact there are only two Catholic high schools in the county and they attract students from across the county. He said last year one driver for a high school route became ill and eventually had to quit. The operator could not find another local driver.
“So, a company from Ottawa provided the service,” he said. “It was tremendously expensive.”
Not only was the driver paid for busing, but also accommodation had to be provided. This went on for several months and enabled about 50 students to attend Bishop Smith from the Deep River/Chalk River area.
With a county as vast and communities geographically spread out over the entire area, busing is the only option for many parents.
“It is extremely difficult,” he said. “We talked about if there is some way we can reorganize routes.”
Since the notice only went out in the morning on Monday, he said he anticipates hearing from parents.
“We sympathize,” he said. “If we could create new drivers we would.”
However, the drivers must undergo a rigorous training process.
“I’m not sure what the answer is for this year,” Mr. Schreader said. “We were hoping for a normal school year with extracurricular activities and all the plusses students experience. In addition, there is the socialization aspect.”
The two-year disruption to schooling due to COVID has created many mental health issues and learning loss challenges for students, he noted. While a remote learning option is still open to students in the board, it is a virtual school which is continuing to operate, he said.
Good News in Barry’s Bay
Renfrew County District School Board Trustee David Kaiser, who represents the Eganville area, said he was initially unaware an email had been sent to parents, and was very disappointed the situation had reached this point. However, he added after looking into the issue he was very pleased to note at least one area saw the crisis averted.
“All the Barry’s Bay routes have been filled,” he said.
Parents were first notified in Barry’s Bay there might be a problem and then were notified the routes were taken care of, he explained. While he was pleased there was good news for Barry’s Bay in knowing all the bus routes were filled, he noted how this was handled was troublesome. “It is unfortunate that the communication sent to parents was late and not accurate,” he said. “We apologize for any inconvenience caused to parents and students.”
The RCJTC is a separate body that the Ministry of Education required boards to set up, manage and maintain transportation services on behalf of school boards, he added.
“They have a challenging role and responsibility to fill,” he said. “We are pleased that all routes have been filled in the Barry’s Bay area and that communication to parents on this update has taken place.”
This is not only a local issue, he acknowledged.
“It is clearly a challenge today to find people who are willing to take on the responsibility of being a bus driver,” Mr. Kaiser said. “We need to acknowledge this is an issue in almost all boards in Ontario right now.”
The notice from the RCJTC was also posted on its website with updates on the cancellations.
Renfrew County Bus Lines has been posting on social media about the bus driver shortage for some time.
“Just getting by? Looking for flexible hours that can work around another job?” a post from 2020 stated. “Renfrew County Bus Lines offers a range of weekly pays. They can vary from $232, up to $540 / week plus four percent vacation on top.”
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader