Every school day since 2016, Susan Moore’s son Tim rode a special-needs bus to get to Innisdale Secondary School in south-end Barrie.
This week, after five and a half years with few incidents and only five months before Tim is expected to graduate high school, the bus abruptly stopped coming.
Multiple parents of special needs students across Simcoe County reached out this week to talk about their children’s transportation through the Simcoe County District School Board being cancelled in the past few weeks.
According to the board, the changes are due to an annual review of special education student transportation and walk-zone compliance which occurred this fall.
However, many of the parents of special-needs students impacted by the change aren’t buying it.
“This has been very low-key and secretive, in my opinion,” Moore told BarrieToday.
Moore’s son is on the autism spectrum and has a developmental delay.
In November 2022, Moore says she was first told by the school’s vice principal that Tim would no longer be eligible for special needs transportation as of Dec. 1 due to living within the school’s "walking zone." This came as a surprise to Moore, as Tim had been taking special-needs transit through the board since 2016.
She appealed the decision through the board, which extended the transit for Tim until Jan. 31 pending a board decision. On Jan. 30, she was informed by director of education John Dance that her appeal had been denied.
“Transportation to school is not mandatory and specialized transportation is discretionary. In all cases within the (board), route re-evaluation considers many factors,” wrote Dance in his letter denying the appeal. “My understanding is that you live within the walk zone and that there is an alternative route to school beyond walking, through Barrie Transit.”
Moore says Tim is not able to take public transit as his developmental delay means he has difficulty communicating.
“Tim is not able to safely or independently get to school on his own,” said Moore. “I almost feel silly for continuing to fight them on this for the sake of five months, but it's really down to the principle of the situation and because it is affecting so many other families as well.”
Moore has connected with other Simcoe County families through Facebook who have expressed similar concerns.
One such parent is Jennifer Minten. Minten’s son is in Grade 7 at Hewitt’s Creek Public School in south-end Barrie, and deals with autism and sensory processing disorder.
When Minten’s family moved to Barrie in 2018, she said her son was immediately approved for the special-needs bus and has taken it since that time.
She says she was never informed officially that her son might no longer be eligible for the bus, until one day this past December when the bus stopped showing up.
“At first we thought it was because he had been ill and didn't think much of it, but after a few days we reached out to the school who advised the bus had been cancelled,” said Minten.
After calls to the Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium and the school turned up no answers, Minten says she was directed to write an appeal to the school board.
“I was extremely frustrated as I kept being directed in circles and no one could tell me who made the decision or why,” said Minten. “To date, I still have not received any formal notification that the transportation has been cancelled.”
Minten says her son’s school had informed her she will now require a note from a family doctor for her son to be eligible for special-needs transit.
“As a single working mother, not only was it a struggle chasing who might be responsible for the cancellation, I now have to find time to visit our family doctor to have her complete a form,” said Minten.
Brendan Drodge’s three children all attend schools within the board. His youngest son, who is 11, is on the autism spectrum and attends a school in Innisfil.
Drodge says his son has been on a special needs van since 2018 when the family moved to Innisfil. As of this year, there were four other children with special needs who also rode in the van with Drodge’s son.
“We’ve never had an issue with the busing situation,” said Drodge.
Drodge says he first heard rumblings there might be a change coming about two weeks ago. About a week ago, he says he was notified by the principal, officially, that the entire van would no longer be available, and the children who ride in the van would be moved to the regular bus. The change would commence starting Feb. 6.
“Prior to that, we had no contact from the consortium. There was no indication that this was even being considered. It came completely out of left field,” said Drodge.
Drodge says it was always a goal for their family for their son to transition to riding the regular school bus one day, but their family hadn’t felt he was ready yet.
“The thing that really irritates me is that when I talked with (the school board), they say they’re basing it on the individual child’s needs. There was absolutely zero forewarning that this was going to happen. It’s putting the cart before the horse,” said Drodge. “This could set these kids back weeks.”
Drodge says his son’s condition hasn’t changed in the four years that he has been enrolled in a Simcoe County public school.
“What are they basing this on now, that he doesn’t qualify?” asked Drodge. “They should have reached out to parents or had staff at the school in consultation provide information to parents.”
When reached for comment regarding the matter this week, Sarah Kekewich, manager of communications with the Simcoe County District School Board said an annual review of special education student transportation and walk zone compliance occurred this fall, and the changes taking place now are borne from that review.
“In situations where it was determined that there would be changes, families were notified prior to the winter break with an implementation date of Feb. 6,” wrote Kekewich in a statement. “In some cases, alternate transportation options have been presented.”
Board chair and Orillia/Ramara/Severn trustee Jodi Lloyd elaborated on the situation, noting transportation needs are reviewed at the board level on an ongoing basis.
“The goal with special education is to work toward independence with those students. What their needs are when they started might not be what their needs are when they mature,” said Lloyd. “Part of the review process is whether the need is still there.”
Lloyd notes that the board’s financial constraints are also taken into consideration.
“From a good governance and accountability piece...we have to ensure the transportation we’re providing is in-line with our policies,” said Lloyd. “We appreciate that this is a change for families, but this is something that is ongoing and continuous."
Barrie trustee Lisa-Marie Wilson declined to provide comment for this story, deferring to Lloyd for media inquiries.
Innisfil trustee Donna Armstrong said the board is facing significant financial pressures on student transportation.
“It's a historical issue,” said Armstrong, noting the board is facing a $2-million deficit for transportation as of this past year. "We're under pressure that our transportation funding from the ministry has not met our needs."
"We're going to be hard-pressed in our next budget year. We've been warned transportation (funding) is not going to increase," she added.