School buses may still have to transport up to 72 children per trip despite COVID-19

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September 3, 2020

As start of school year approaches, school buses may still have to transport up to 72 children per trip despite COVID-19; Union for drivers and monitors in Northern Ontario calls on all parties to revisit plans.

Across Ontario, school bus companies have been scrambling to establish plans that meet the framework put forth by the Ford PC government and the reopening arrangements of local school boards, while keeping the health and safety of the students, drivers and monitors as the top priority. Local 175 of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) represents more than 330 school bus drivers and monitors in Northern Ontario, at Leuschen Bus Lines in Timmins and First Student Bus Lines in Sault Ste. Marie and Kenora.

Under the Ford framework, school buses are expected to be at maximum capacity – with up to 72 children plus the driver – and will be making more trips per route each day than previously. In addition, many other concerns – from masking protocols to physical distancing – also haven’t been addressed by Ford’s inadequate plan.

“Our members are worried,” said UFCW Local 175 President Shawn Haggerty. “The safety of every child and worker on school buses in Ontario is at stake and the plans put forth so far seem to be in opposition to the advice coming from public health agencies.”

UFCW Local 175 is calling on the government and relevant employers to take another look at return-to-school plans. When it comes to bussing children to and from school, every day, there must be limits on how many can safely ride a bus at one time while maintaining physical distancing. There must be protocols for the use of masks on buses, and making sure that bus drivers and monitors have access to the necessary resources. The plan must also include sustainable funding to address the need to hire more drivers to allow for more buses on more routes.

Linda Lefebvre is a Member of UFCW Local 175 who works as a school bus monitor in Timmins. “I love my job and the kids,” said Linda. “I’m concerned about how we are all going to be safe. There can be over 70 kids on a bus at one time, right up against each other. If we’re supposed to social distance to stay safe, how can it be safe to be that close together twice a day, five times a week?”

A number of workplaces – such as manufacturing and meat processing facilities as well as settings like long-term care homes – have become sources of outbreaks for the virus because of people being in close proximity to one another.

Adding to the concern is the fact that many school bus drivers are older people who have picked up the job later in life. The medical community has asserted consistently that older demographics are more at risk from COVID-19 than others.

“I feel as though the plan from the government hasn’t been fully thought out,” said Don Siegwart who is a UFCW Local 175 member and driver from Sault Ste. Marie. “The employer is scrambling to figure out the plan, with only a short time to go, based on constantly changing advice from government. I feel as though more could have been done to ensure as much safety as possible, like smaller class sizes and bus limits.”

“Our members who drive and monitor on school buses love the work they do and they care deeply about the health and welfare of every student in their care,” added Haggerty. “This situation is frustrating for everyone involved and it could have been avoided if the government had taken their responsibilities seriously. Ford had ample time to commit to finding solutions to keep our children and workers safe – and he failed. I would urge Doug Ford to take what time is left before the school year starts and show some true leadership. Our workers and our children deserve better.”

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