The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) is warning that an ongoing driver shortage has forced it to change or even cancel numerous school bus routes as kids across the city prepare to return to classes next week.
OSTA oversees student transportation for the city's two English-language school boards, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB), serving more than 124,000 students at 227 schools.
Last week, OSTA said 107 routes had been cancelled, affecting 2,422 students. On Tuesday, OSTA's general manager and chief administrative officer Vicky Kyriaco told CBC's All In A Day that the authority is now trying to find "creative solutions" for about 1,500 students, and is seeking about 70 drivers.
"We've got quite a few drivers who are going through the training process right now, and they'll be available on Sept. 12, and we've got a number of drivers who are expecting to come back by end of September, so that will definitely provide some relief," Kyriaco said.
OSTA has embarked on an aggressive public information campaign in an effort to attract more school bus drivers. Kyriaco said the campaign resulted in the recruitment of 25 drivers.
"But we need more," she said. "We need many, many more."
On Monday, the authority warned of "multiple changes and cancellations to transportation services for OCDSB and OCSB students."
Some students in grades 7-12 will be moved to OC Transpo, OSTA said Monday. In cases where school bus routes are cancelled and there's no alternative transportation, "parents will need to find alternative transportation to get their children to school for the next few weeks until service stabilizes."
Parents and guardians of children who have been moved to public transit can request a single-ride voucher to accompany their child without paying a separate fare.
Compounding the worry this week was the fact that OSTA's online parent portal, where parents can find more specific information about their children's school bus routes and schedules, was down Monday.
"As soon as we're absolutely confident ... that all our servers are stable, then we're going to send a message out to the public so that they can all come back," she said.
That message came Wednesday morning.
OSTA 'working tirelessly'
In its previous update on Aug. 22, OSTA said: "We recognize this is still a challenge for many families, and we are working tirelessly on finding temporary and long-term solutions for the families facing service disruptions. OSTA has planned for full loads and will readjust once school has started and loads are balanced."
Among those other temporary solutions, OSTA said it's considering combining routes, adding "congregated stops" and turning to other alternatives such as vans.
In its Aug. 22 update, OSTA said it still expects to be able to provide safe, reliable transportation this September to more than 96 per cent of the students it serves. The authority also noted that the situation was even worse last September, when "transportation services were disrupted for 12,000 students."
OSTA said it's updating information about school bus routes daily. On Tuesday, the list included a total of eight cancelled routes affecting students at eight different schools, all within the Catholic board.
School resumes on Sept. 6 for students with both the OCDSB and the OCSB.