Local school bus drivers are feeling anxious about the reopening of schools next week as the omicron variant continues to make its way through the community.
Innisfil resident Carol Griffith has been driving school buses for the past 30 years and says a lot of the job has changed since then, in terms of responsibility and expectations, especially now with COVID in the mix.
"It's no longer just a matter of getting your kid to school safely," she said, noting the extra tasks that must be completed including extra sanitization of the bus, ensuring children are wearing masks and keeping a safe distance apart.
Griffith is currently off work as of last year as she battles cancer.
"I'm glad I'm not driving right now because my anxiety would be so heightened," she said.
But she knows of many drivers who are anxious about next week and are unhappy with the way they have been regarded throughout the pandemic by government and public health officials.
She says many of them don't want to speak out, in fear of losing their job.
Griffith and other local bus drivers say there appears to be little consideration for the risk of COVID exposure to the drivers.
On Dec. 31, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said students would be returning to safer schools, with enhanced ventilation in the classrooms, providing additional HEPA filters.
But that doesn't include buses.
"What about how these children are getting to school?" questioned Griffith. "School buses are 40-foot tin cans, only ventilation are windows, no barriers and a breeding ground (for virus transmission)."
The province also announced that school staff will be provided with N95 masks, and students three-ply masks upon return to the classroom on Monday. On Wednesday afternoon Lecce also announced additional safety measures which will see students and staff receiving two rapid test kits each next week.
John Barbato, CEO and general manager for the Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium (SCSTC), confirmed that all school bus drivers will be provided with N95 masks for the start of the 2022 school year.
"For January 2022, the government has made non-fit-tested N95 masks available to school vehicle drivers, these masks were delivered to all SCSTC contracted school vehicle operators last week. Additionally, school vehicle drivers have been provided with access to accelerated vaccine appointments," he said.
The Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium (SCSTC) provides transportation for approximately 35,000 out of a total of over 77,000 students enrolled in local school boards.
The role of the SCSTC includes contracting school vehicle operators on behalf of the Simcoe County District School Board and the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board. The consortium contracts more than 720 school vehicles and services 150 schools in Simcoe County.
Barbato said throughout the pandemic, student transportation managed by the consortium has followed all provincial government, Ministry of Education and local public health unit guidelines, as outlined in the province's COVID-19: Health, Safety, and Operational Guidance for schools.
The guidelines include daily COVID-19 self-assessment screening for drivers and students, mandatory masking of all drivers and students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 while on school vehicles, assigned seating for students on school vehicles enhanced cleaning protocols of disinfecting high-touch surfaces twice daily for school vehicles, and promoting physical distancing at bus stops, proper hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette.
He confirmed personal protective equipment has been provided for all school vehicle drivers throughout the pandemic.
But Griffith says the type of equipment and how buses are sanitized varies from bus company to bus company. Griffith said her company provides hospital-grade equipment, including wipes and sanitizers, but it isn't the same for each company.
The issue some of the drivers have with the policies in place is that they are not uniform across the board. Bus companies each have their own set of policies when it comes to safety training, COVID protocols and pay.
"When it comes to the fundamentals there should be consistency with the school boards, the government," said Griffith.
"We are truly the last to be thought about," said Sara Smith (name has been changed for confidentiality), a school bus driver of 23 years in Simcoe County.
One of her concerns is that if she catches COVID, her company will not pay her, and she will need to collect EI or WSIB.
"I think the company should step up because you showed up for work and they should be paying you your daily wage," said Smith. "If I was a new driver starting out, with all the responsibility and with the pay, I wouldn't even think of it."
According to payscale.com, the average bus driver in Ontario makes $17.29 an hour.
When asked why she keeps driving, Smith says it's because she loves her job and working with the students.
"I just wish we were thought of more," said Smith, noting there is not much appreciation or recognition for school bus drivers, from officials and parents.
Another driver, Jane Doe, (name has been changed due to confidentiality reasons) is currently battling COVID. She has been a bus driver for the past 18 years and says it has been a tough time being a bus driver in a pandemic.
"For the first time in ever, I thought about changing careers," she said. "They have very specific guidelines for everybody but not bus drivers, we seem to be left out in the cold."
"I am supposed to be watching the road, I am responsible to keep all of these kids safe, and making them wear a mask is keeping them safe but there is only so much one person can do," she said.
Bus driving is "not for everybody" as Smith pointed out, noting the high turnover rates in the industry.
In 2017, the Ontario government launched the Driver Retention Program (DRP) through the Ministry of Education, committing up to $60 million to fund three $1,000 bonus payments per term from 2018-2019, as a reward for continuous employment. The bonus was extended to the 2021-2022 school year.
The purpose of the bonuses is to enhance school bus driver recruitment and retention among school bus operators in the Province of Ontario.
"It's there to try to get new people driving because they are always shorthanded and can't keep drivers," said Griffith.
Griffith was driving at the time the bonuses were given out, and says she didn't receive her bonus payments until six months after the term.
"Drivers feel ignored, unimportant," said Griffith. "They just want to be equally considered, it's (driving a school bus is) not considered an essential service and it should be."