The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) says 2,360 students will have no bus to school Monday when the city's English-language boards resume classes.
Due to a severe driver shortage that's become even more serious since Labour Day, OSTA announced Friday it's had to cancel 30 routes affecting 45 schools for Sept. 14.
OSTA general manager Vicky Kyriaco said the authority is short more than 100 drivers for the 555 routes it operates for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and Ottawa Catholic School Board.
"We recognize this is the only way that some of the kids can get to school, and we're sort of deeply horrified by the situation that we're in. But it can't be helped," Kyriaco said.
She said the boards provided OSTA with lists of schools where students may not have alternatives to school buses.
"We were looking at how to preserve some yellow bus service out in rural areas. The other thing we were looking at is schools we understand that are in socio-economically challenged areas," Kyriaco said.
She said because most school bus drivers are retirees in their 60s and older, many have decided to bow out this fall in light of the risk of contracting COVID-19.
OSTA had previously announced pandemic precautions including personal protective equipment for drivers and assigned seating for students. In addition, because of the large number of students who have opted for remote learning this fall, as well as those who have found alternative transportation, Kyriaco said no bus will be operating at full capacity, and will instead have just 20 to 50 students aboard.
More cancellations may follow
Kyriaco said OSTA has so far reconfigured 146 routes, but the situation could evolve depending on the ongoing availability of drivers. Parents are being asked to subscribe to the OSTA alert system and watch social media for the latest information.
OSTA's website has a list of school bus route cancellations, and the authority says it will be updated on an ongoing basis.
Kyriaco said additional last-minute cancellations will be posted between noon the day before and 6:15 a.m. the day of, much like a snow day. This year, however, the cause could be different, Kyriaco said.
"During the start-up and during October, kids bring colds home. Drivers tend it get sick. It's not likely to be COVID, but they are going to get sniffles or coughs, and they are going to have to not work," she said.
"We don't have any capacity to cover those routes. That's where cancellations might happen."
Kyriaco said more drivers could become available in October or November. She said 15 drivers are in training and more are being recruited, however she noted the shortage has been a chronic issue since 2015, when full-day kindergarten eliminated midday bus routes, effectively turning driving into a part-time job.
Drivers earn about $18 an hour, with opportunities for overtime and other top-ups based on the type of routes they serve, she said.
Working with OC Transpo
OSTA is working with OC Transpo to move some students in grades 7-12 over to the public transit system.
Pat Srimgeour, the city's director of transit customer systems and planning, said OC Transpo is ready to accept more customers.
"Our ridership is down right now with so many people working from home, so we have more capacity than we do normally. So we're here and able to accept more people as customers," Scrimgeour said.
Some students at the following schools will now be taking regular OC Transpo routes to get to class and will be issued Presto cards:
- Notre Dame High School, freeing up seven school buses.
- Holy Trinity School, freeing up one bus.
- Earl of March Secondary School, freeing up one bus.
Scrimgeour said some larger buses and additional trips may be added to some routes to accommodate the students, but regular customers shouldn't notice a change in service.