The chief executive officer of the Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium held a press conference today at the Simcoe County District School Board offices in Midhurst to address concerns about student busing across the county.
While John Barbato did not provide a prepared statement and was light on details, he took questions on new safety and cleaning protocols intended to keep kids safe come September.
The announcement follows the public board’s unveiling of their overall back to school plan on Wednesday.
“Buses will be sanitized twice daily, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, following Ministry of Education guidelines,” said Barbato.
The consortium oversees transportation of students for both public and Catholic school boards in the county. It has approximately 725 buses on the road, with 725 drivers plus a 10 per cent spare driver contingent.
Between the public and Catholic school boards, approximately 36,000 students are transported daily.
While numbers vary in different parts of the county, Barbato said each bus services two schools per day. Buses will still be serving multiple school boards.
On average, Barbato said buses in Simcoe County run two routes in the morning, and two routes in the afternoon, sometimes for different boards.
When asked whether that cleaning would happening between board pick-ups, Barbato said there wouldn’t necessarily be cleaning between each route. There will also be no plexiglass barriers installed on school buses.
“The Ministry of Transportation has said school buses can’t be retrofitted... to add shields,” he said.
Drivers will be responsible for doing all cleaning and sanitization, and will be tasked with enforcing physical distancing on buses. There will be extra masks on the buses for drivers to hand out should a student try to board a bus without a mask. Hand sanitizer will also be provided.
No additional staffing will be allocated for enforcement on buses.
“Drivers will need to ensure students from Grades 4 to 12 are wearing masks and are following a seating plan. Where there are any concerns they would report that back to the consortium,” said Barbato.
Doug Paul, superintendent of education for the Simcoe County District School Board, said discipline protocol on buses previous to COVID-19 was for drivers to report infractions to school principals and that protocol would continue in the fall.
Medical masks and face shields will be provided for drivers. Masks will be worn by drivers while driving, while face shields will only be required for drivers while students are getting on and off the bus. Drivers will receive one day’s training on the new protocols.
When asked whether drivers will receive additional compensation for their new work duties, Barbato said that would be worked out between drivers and their employer, but that drivers are already expected to monitor students on the bus as part of their responsibilities.
“The capacity is going to be about the same on the bus. They typically hold about 70 students, but they are not planned to have 70 students,” said Barbato. “We will maintain the seats behind the driver as empty.”
While Barbato said it is too early to determine what the school bus needs are going to be until survey results come back, the consortium has the capability of adding as many buses as needed to accommodate physical distancing, should that need arise.
The transportation press conference followed an announcement made on Wednesday about the public board’s back-to-school plans. To read our story about overall plans, click here.
Jen Hare, Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) bargaining unit president for Simcoe County, said teachers are feeling anxious and disappointed by the plans released so far.
“They’re concerned about what protocols and procedures the board are going to put in place,” said Hare. “We have no idea what the procedure is for calling in sick, or if a student in my classroom or teacher is COVID-19 positive.
“There are really very few days before September, and we don’t have any of that information nailed down,” she added.
The two major areas of concern for Hare are class size and the length of time students will be physically in the school.
“In Simcoe County, we have Grade 11 and 12 classes that have up to 36 students. When we hear ‘social distancing,’ I have personally taught in classrooms where you couldn’t fit in 33 desks, let alone 36, never mind having them a metre apart,” she said.
“We were looking for additional funding to limit class size to keep kids at a safe distance, and we haven’t seen that.”
With common spaces, such as cafeterias, being closed for the time being, students will have to take off their masks to eat lunch in classrooms.
“We’ve been told that maintaining a distance and wearing a mask are the two ways to keep us safe and neither will be possible,” said Hare.
When it comes to transportation, Hare is also concerned. Not only do school buses do runs for different boards, some also do a run for elementary and another for secondary, which could increase the risk of cross-contamination should an outbreak occur.
“If cohorting is really the way to keep kids safe, as soon as they take a bus trip, or use the washroom, they’re breaking those cohorts by being exposed to other kids,” said Hare. “If they’re exposed to the virus on the bus and then they come to school and remove their mask to eat their lunch, the spread will be hard to trace and quite extensive.”
This week, parents/guardians will be contacted by the public board to complete a survey regarding individual student/family circumstances and intentions in preparation for September. The survey will address in-school and voluntary learn-at-home options as well as technology and transportation needs.
The survey for the public board is open for parents to complete until Aug. 14. If you have a child in the public board and do not receive an email with a survey link by Aug. 10, email email@example.com.