‘We don't want an outbreak in our communities to start on a school bus’
Unifor school bus driver members are calling on the Ontario government to implement standardized COVID-19 safety protocols to protect both themselves and the students on board.
“Drivers are very concerned about pandemic safety measures, or lack thereof, that are supposed to come into effect in just a few short weeks,” said Debbie Montgomery, President of Unifor Local 4268. “Right now many of these drivers are not getting information on how they will be kept safe.”
The drivers warned that COVID-19 regulations shift from school board to school board with no mandated regulations on passenger limits, social distancing, mask requirements or bus sanitization procedures.
The call came after nearly two weeks since Unifor sent a statement on behalf of more than 2,500 drivers to Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce, and Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney on Aug. 13 with five key demands. These were:
- Properly mandate the use of facemasks, shields, gloves and gowns and ensure that all bus operators provide drivers with proper personal protective equipment to protect both workers and passengers.
- Treat buses like any other confined space and limit the number of students per route to ensure proper social distancing. School buses cannot be loaded with 74 students (as one driver's September 2020 manifest route log revealed). This is both risky and unacceptable.
- Provide extra government funding to support driver hiring and retention to increase the number of buses and routes, as well as additional resources such as paid adult school bus monitors to assist drivers that transport younger children or students with extra needs.
- Students must be mandated to wear masks at all times inside the bus for self-protection and the protection of others.
- Buses need to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized at the end of each run. This must be done by professionally trained cleaners. Drivers must not be tasked with this job or have this included as part of their normal duties.
In the said statement, the union noted that the government announced the allocation of $40 million to go towards the cleaning and sanitation of school buses and the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) for drivers across Ontario.
“We must ensure this money is used exactly for this purpose and that it is not simply funneled into the hands of private student transportation without transparency and accountability mechanisms in place,” said the union.
The union said that many teachers, parents and students alike are concerned about what September will look like and how a return to school will unfold in a pandemic era. It added that the return to school can be done safely with all stakeholders doing their part and the proper plans and resources put into place.
However, the Ontario government’s plans have provided little reassurance. “Student transportation cannot be the weak link in a chain that causes a failure or outbreak,” said Unifor.
“As return to school dates approach our drivers want to return to work to do their jobs but they want to keep safe, to keep their small passengers safe and to keep our communities safe,” said Montgomery. “We're willing to work to find a solution, we know how important it is to get kids to school but we don't want to be the weak link in the system. We don't want an outbreak in our communities to start on a school bus.”
Return to school
On Aug. 13, Ontario announced that it is allowing boards to make necessary adaptations, in consultation with their local public health unit, including smaller class sizes and leasing additional space. Other government safety measures also include:
- Unlocking access to reserves up to $496 million, an increase of $244 million, by allowing boards to access up to two per cent of their operating budget from their prior-year accumulated surplus. This funding can be applied to local priorities of each board, based on the immediate needs on the ground to prepare for the start of school. For boards that do not have sufficient reserves, the government will provide up to an additional $11 million in funding to support equitable school reopening plans provincewide.
- Providing a record-setting $50 million in one-time funding to support improved ventilation, air quality and HVAC system effectiveness in schools. School boards will continue to maximize their use of existing school renewal funding, which totals over $1.4 billion this school year. Boards will focus on improving air systems in older schools, portables, and in neighbourhoods with higher rates of community transmission.