Ontario school board's new 4 p.m. bell time sparks outrage

A petition started to oppose the Durham District School Board’s (DDSB) new 4 p.m. bell time for the 2021-2022 academic year has garnered more than 2,000 signatures.

The petition, started by Donald A. Wilson Secondary School Grade 11 student Erica Trotman, calls the new schedule "extremely impactful to high school students," pointing to a potential scheduling conflict with after-school commitments.

"There's a lot of people saying, well, I don't have time for work, I don't have time for sports, I'm going to be exhausted and I just feel the exact same way," Trotman told CTV News Toronto on Monday.

According to DDSB, the change is due to a shortage of school bus drivers in Ontario — a problem that the board says goes back a number of years.

"The ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the issue, and as a result, the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule was the only way that Durham Student Transportation Services could ensure all eligible students can receive transportation services," DDSB said in a statement provided to CTV News Toronto on Monday.

"We understand that this may be a shift for some families and want to highlight that it is not a permanent decision for future school years beyond the 2021-22 school year," the statement reads.

Trotman, who plays high-level competitive softball, is vying for a scholarship next year— a goal that requires hours of practice and ample time for travel and games, and one she's been working at since she was five years old.

She said the new schedule will make her day-to-day "exhausting."

"A lot of the time I practice almost right after school so I can get as much time as in as possible before it gets dark out," Trotman said. “It would be devastating not to have time for [softball.]"

Another petition supporter said the new schedule would not allow her to see her child home until 5:30 p.m. daily.

"My child will have over an hour bus ride home from school. It's way too late and it will be impossible for her to get an afterschool job," parent Danielle Bender wrote.

Madison Cook is in Grade 11 in Whitby. She said many older students need to be off before 4 p.m. to pick up younger siblings and work part-time jobs.

"A lot of it is paying for post secondary. I need to make money for myself," said Cook. "It's been hard to get jobs during COVID. I’m also a ski instruction my entire season was cancelled because of the lockdown in the winter."

While DDSB has made no indication that they’re planning to revise the decision, they say they will be monitoring the impacts.

"We will be checking in throughout the year to determine how families and staff are managing with the change, which will help inform planning for future school years."

Right now school instruction runs until 2:45 p.m. Until 4 p.m., students have a period when a teacher is available for help. But in the fall students are to attend school— until 4 p.m.

Trotman plans to contact her school trustee so she can show it to the school board in the hopes it can find another solution or reverse the decision altogether.

School Bus Ontario which represents more than 130 operators said shortages vary from region to region. Province-wide it’s down hundreds of drivers, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic

“There were a lot of drivers who chose not to return to work this fall because a lot of them are over the age of 60 and there are a higher risk category to catch COVID,” said Nancy Daigneault, Executive Director.

Daigneault said most drivers have opted to get vaccinated and hopes they’ll will return work.

The Ontario government said it funds transportation, but all decisions around it rests with school boards.

This spring it renewed a program to reward school bus drivers with up to $2,000 who stay on the job throughout the year. 

Students with Durham's Catholic District School Board are also moving to the later time.

"We understand that there are a number of concerns being raised about the 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. secondary school day in September. Unfortunately, the reality is that due to the pandemic there are less school bus drivers available as we plan for next year," said Tracy Barill, Director of Education.

"In addition, we have been asked by the Ministry of Education to maintain the flexibility to be able to pivot to a partial or full remote learning schedule if required (should there be a rise in COVID cases) for at least the first half of the school year. As a result, the only option operationally is a 10:00 a.m. start time."