School bus drivers’ union raises concerns ahead of back-to-school; local medical officer of health hints at low ridership

Drivers' union concerned buses will be the "weak link" in provincial recovery

The union representing 2,500 Ontario school bus drivers has made its concerns known ahead of the return to school.

Members of Unifor Local 4268 gathered in Scarborough on Tuesday to highlight elements of the provincial back-to-school plan that fail to ensure the safety of drivers and students. Local president Debbie Montgomery says she fears school buses will be the “weak link” in the province’s recovery from the pandemic. “With weeks to go drivers still do not have information on measures to protect them and the students onboard from COVID-19,” said Montgomery. “Many of our drivers are senior citizens, more vulnerable to the virus, and right now they’re telling me that they feel like sitting ducks.”

Montgomery added numerous drivers have reached out to say they are considering not coming back in the fall.

“There is a mandate, like there is in schools, for masking for students who go on,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce in response to Unifor’s concerns. “There’s assigned seating which is really critical for contact management and tracing.”

“Obviously, we’re doing everything possible, and providing very clear guidance that’s going to make these experiences on school buses more safer for the kids and ultimately the driver,” he added.

Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit Dr. Charles Gardner said there may be fewer students per bus in this region. “If there is a reduction in use of the bus then that would allow for more spacing,” he said. “In my discussion with the school board directors, that may be the case. There might actually be a larger portion of students that are going to be choosing other means of getting to school.”

“I agree that it is part of the profile of potential risk exposures associated with opening up the schools. We do believe it is important to open up the schools,” Gardner concluded.