Fears over the spread of COVID-19 on Edmonton school buses are contributing to a city-wide driver shortage — and students are expected to face delays in getting to class for weeks to come.
As schools across the city began to open up Wednesday, Edmonton's public and Catholic districts sent notices to parents warning of ongoing busing delays. Some children arrived at school Thursday more than 90 minutes behind schedule.
The driver shortage is affecting school bus routes across the city. As of Thursday morning, 22 buses contracted by the Catholic district were expected to be delayed; 19 of them were running at least an hour behind schedule.
The delays are expected to continue through September.
Parents are understanding at this point but that patience will not continue if the situation does not improve. - Debbie Hunter
Debbie Hunter, director of transportation for Edmonton Catholic Schools, said the delays are affecting students on the ride to school and the return home. Many drivers are doing double duty, she said.
"They have to double up routes," Hunter said Thursday. "But we're still providing the service, even though it's going to be delayed. And in some cases, if students are missed, we're asking carriers to go back to pick up those students. We did that yesterday."
Edmonton schools have adopted staggered arrival times to help promote physical distancing so tardy students are not missing instructional time, Hunter said.
She said school officials are working with carriers to combine routes and get more drivers on the road quickly. She hopes the delays will begin to improve by next week.
"We're working with the carriers every day," Hunter said.
"Parents are understanding at this point but that patience will not continue if the situation does not improve."
School officials in both districts have posted interactive bus schedules online and are asking guardians to check routes daily for possible delays. School bus tracker apps are also available to provide guardians more accurate arrival times.
'There's some anxiety'
"I've been doing this for 33 years, I would say this is absolutely the toughest I've ever seen it," said Brian Hauptman, a manager with Golden Arrow, which operates about 300 school buses across both districts.
"I come from a family that owned their own company. We've been at this for 50-plus years and I've never seen this. It's huge, it's absolutely huge."
Hauptman said 106 drivers did not return to work at Golden Arrow this fall, cutting the company's overall workforce by more than 10 per cent.
About 65 of the drivers who quit cited health reasons, Hauptman said. Dozens more told the company they were concerned about exposing a family member to the disease or were fearful of getting sick on the job. Others had decided to keep their children out of the classroom and needed to stay home.
Even with enhanced health protocols being enforced on buses, some drivers didn't feel returning to the job was worth the risk, Hauptman said.
"Obviously, there's some anxiety," he said.
"We've done everything to give them the tools for them to be safe. You know, we have the enhanced cleaning going on on the school buses. We supplied all the products they need.
"But you can't really can't fault people who say, 'Hey, I've got to look after my mom and she's elderly, so I can't drive a school bus.' I mean, you have to respect that."
Hauptman said economic factors are also at play. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which has been extended through September, pays better than the $1,800 average monthly wage for drivers, he said.
Meanwhile, new mandatory training requirements introduced after the Humboldt bus tragedy means recruitment is more difficult, time-consuming and costly.
Drivers now need a special certification on their licence and must complete mandatory entry-level training. Certification takes at least four weeks to complete, doubling the training time for each driver and increasing operational costs, Hauptman said.
'Adaptability is critical'
Golden Arrow is working hard to recruit new drivers and has increased its monthly training budget from $26,000 per month to $47,000, Hauptman said.
He hopes to have a full complement of drivers before winter but is concerned about increasing infection rates.
Any illness or suspected exposure can force a driver into quarantine for weeks.
"If a driver has to go for COVID testing, they can no longer operate a school bus. So right now, where we're sitting, we're not even managing people getting sick."
Hauptman said his staff are working hard to fill the gaps and be flexible, working long hours on routes that are new to them.
"School bus drivers for the most part, they love the children. They don't do it for the money. We can only give them the tools they need and give them the best information that they need.
"Adaptability is critical right now for the drivers. And they're really good, the drivers are really good."