Even with 6,000 more students than usual having to find their own way to school this fall, a group that represents bus drivers says 46 students on a bus is still too many.
Having that many aboard a school bus — the maximum allowed by the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District's back-to-school plan, announced Monday — "does not even approach the thought of physical distancing," said Dave Callahan, who represents the Newfoundland and Labrador Bus Operators Group.
"If we screw this up on the bus, we're delivering the problem to the schools. If we are first, let's be first and do it right and do it the way it should be done."
Callahan says class times should be staggered to allow more bus trips to accommodate the thousands of students who no longer qualify to ride the bus.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said the 46 seats available will be prioritized for children at the farthest pickup points, and about 6,000 students would no longer be able to take the bus to school.
The district says the reduction in the number of students aboard the bus is to ensure the safety of the students and the bus driver, who are all required to wear masks while on board.
Ride to school
Education Minister Brian Warr says he hopes parents will drive their children to school.
"While we understand it will be an inconvenience for some, we are asking parents to consider driving their children if possible," said Warr during the provincial COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. "The district is working on other measures to accommodate more students where possible."
He said the district will be contacting parents over the next few days to determine if they do plan on putting their children on the bus.
"Students have a spot on the bus, but in many cases, those spots are not taken," said Warr.
Warr wants school bus numbers to get back to where they were before the pandemic by adding double runs when possible.
"Some are wondering why we can't bring on more buses, but it's not that simple," he said
"It was identified in the spring that the manufacturing and delivery of school buses has been impacted across the country by the pandemic. The department provided an exemption just a while ago for the school district to be able to use 13-year-old buses. The usual cutoff for the age of a bus is 12 years," Warr said.
Buses sitting idle, says driver
But Callahan says he has identified dozens of idle buses that could be put into use.
"Why have 80 to 100 that I have identified, sit idle, while kids are walking the street?" he said.
Warr says the district and government will contact bus contractors throughout the province to see if there are any extra buses available.
"Depending on the specifications and the implications with regards to their own contracts and having to have buses packed and ready to go in case of breakdown, if there's other buses through the province — I mean, we'll do everything that we can to utilize those buses as well," said Warr.
Callahan says bus operators were not consulted by the district before announcing the back-to-school plan, even though the changes affect bus operators.
He said there is no way to enforce the rule that students are required to keep their masks on at all times while on the bus.
"Now, instead of always having eyes forward and watching traffic and watching their driving, they have an added task. Before, it was tough enough to keep the kids in their seats."
He said the the school district should offset disinfecting costs because operators can't absorb the extra costs.