The head of the agency responsible for getting English-language students to school in Ottawa says she understands parents' and students' frustration over cancelled bus routes, but acknowledges the problem may take months to fix.
Vicky Kyriaco, general manager of the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA), provided a virtual update Wednesday in response to a driver shortage that's led to the cancellation of roughly 90 yellow school bus routes thus far this school year.
"The big message was about getting back to normal school life and transportation is a big part of that," said Kyriaco. "What we all forget is that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. We still have drivers who are concerned about their health and who are looking with trepidation to whether they should return or not."
As a result of the route cancellations, more than 3,000 students from Grade 7 through 12 have been provided Presto cards to use OC Transpo, thereby freeing yellow buses for elementary students.
However, parents and students have complained the OC Transpo buses are often crowded, and in many cases the trips and transfers on public transit greatly increase travel times.
During her briefing to reporters, Kyriaco said she appreciates people's patience.
"We understand that there are some long trips and we get that it's uncomfortable and that it's not ideal," she said. "But at the same time, we need to focus our attention on the kids who really, really need transportation."
Wages, route locations affect driver shortage
As of Wednesday OSTA reported 102 permanent yellow bus drivers had quit since July, with only 46 recruits being added to the pool of available drivers.
The driver shortage will take weeks, if not months to address, said Kyriaco, since her agency does not directly hire drivers, bur rather issues contracts to private operators that hire their own drivers.
"We are working with [private bus companies] to find out what their recruiting strategies are ... and trying to see how that fits within what the service needs are for our customers," said Kyriaco.
"Is it sustainable to expect retirees to be our main pool of candidates for drivers? And do we have to look at maybe changing what the wage structure could be with our operators?"
In addition to wages, the geographical location of a route has been a roadblock for some potential drivers, since they're expected to work a split-shift.
"The west end is booming with new families," said Kyriaco. "When we recruit drivers throughout the city they're not necessarily going to drive all the way out to West Carleton or Fitzroy Harbour if they're hired out in the Orléans area. They often want to stay within the community where they reside."
With fewer yellow buses in operation, the agency has set a priority of servicing rural routes, followed by schools located in low-income communities, and giving precedence to elementary schools over high schools.
It has also launched a voucher program that offers students a free morning or afternoon ride on OC Transpo in the event their yellow bus is cancelled at the last minute.
Kyriaco said her staff will provide an update to OSTA's board on Sept. 27.