The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) says its familiar yellow buses won't be running until Sept. 14 as it adapts to last-minute changes to school schedules amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a back-to-school planning update Monday, Vicky Kyriaco, OSTA's general manager, said parents will be able to see route details by Sept. 7. She said students who get to school by van or OC Transpo will have those options available to them from the start of school.
She said OSTA will have a better idea of its capacity on certain routes when the English-language public and Catholic boards provide more details on enrolment, including how many students won't need to ride the bus because they've opted for remote learning.
French public and Catholic schools are not affected by the delay.
Kyriaco said fewer students would normally mean fewer buses, but that's not necessarily the case in the context of the pandemic.
"What we're counting on is some students won't be going to school," Kyriaco said. "This is not the year of trying to find efficiencies for savings. This year is about trying to find space."
Kyriaco said 5,500 students have opted out of busing this year, according to OSTA's own online survey. She said some routes have fewer than 50 students on a bus with capacity for 70.
Aiming for 1 per seat
OSTA said its objective is to have one student per seat, though in some situations there may be as many as three students per seat, which is normal for a bus operating at capacity. Schools will be involved in assigning seating on buses.
"We're looking at ways to group siblings together, maybe those are the ones that go three to a seat. Then we spread out different classroom cohorts throughout the bus to make sure there's space," Kyriaco said.
Bus drivers will be wearing masks while kids board and exit the bus, and will be given the choice of goggles or face shields. Buses won't have Plexiglas barriers or curtains because they haven't been tested for crash safety.
Masks will be mandatory for students from grades 4 to 12, and encouraged for younger children. Buses will be cleaned and handrails disinfected after the morning and afternoon runs.
Assigned seating vital
Kyriaco said assigned seating is vital in the event of a positive case of COVID-19.
"The seat assignment and having the kids stay in their seats is really, really important with the contact tracing," she said, adding Ottawa Public Health will handle contact tracing should the need arise.
"That's what's going to help other kids to stay in school. That's what will help the driver to stay in the bus, driving the bus. When kids are moving around, that's when the contact tracing really becomes a little more problematic."
Students who don't follow the rules will be reported to their school's administrators, Kyriaco said.
School bus companies have faced chronic understaffing in recent years, and the pandemic hasn't helped. The industry relies heavily on retirees and other part-time workers over 60 who will have to make their own decisions, Kyriaco said.
"Operators are reporting at the moment that they do have the drivers necessary, but there is some concern that as they receive the loads there could be a shortage," Kyriaco said.
The planned delay is appreciated by Martine Lavigueur, transportation coordinator with 417 Bus Lines.
His company operates 140 bus routes across four school boards in Ottawa and eastern Ontario.
With less than two weeks until the start of school for most students, there wouldn't have been enough time to train drivers on the new safety measures, he said, adding that the company will also need to hire more drivers to replace those who quit out of concern for their safety.
"A lot of our drivers are probably not too keen on some of the protocols that will be put into place," he said. "We do have some that have left the company unfortunately and now we have to find spare drivers for those routes."
Lavigueur said the company currently has up to 15 routes that don't have a driver.