As children prepare for in-class learning again on Monday, officials and bus drivers are getting ready for regular pick-up again despite rising cases in the north. A move that one northern Ontario bus driver feels uneasy about.
After an extended winter break from the classroom, students are expected to return to in-person learning on Monday and with that means jumping on the school bus again.
"All but one school in our area, detachment area, fall under the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, so they are back to class in person on Monday and transportation services for elementary and secondary school students will be as per the norm starting Monday morning," Nipissing Parry Sound Student Transportation Services Executive Director Chuck Seguin said. "The only exception to that is MacTier Public School, which falls under the Simcoe Health Unit boundary and that school will remain closed for the next two weeks."
Seguin adds that all children who are registered in schools that are open on Monday will have transportation provided to them.
However, with winter weather now upon us, officials are reminding students that COVID-19 safety protocols are still in place and need to be followed.
"A scarf, balaclava, whatever, you might wear as winter gear is no substitute for a mask," said Seguin. "They don’t do the same thing and our requirement for the students to wear masks on the buses remain."
The Ford government made the decision to expand the two-week shutdown in the north but said in-person classes will resume. This decision has left one bus driver in the north questioning how it is safe.
"It doesn’t make much sense," said Sarah Lacourse. "You know, because children are still going to go to school, maybe they can pick up COVID from somewhere and spread it. With the new cases in northern Ontario, it’s going up. So honestly, [I] don’t feel very safe in my bus at all anymore."
Lacourse explains that she can have up to 72 kids on her bus, making social distancing impossible. Additionally buses are able to pick-up for more than one school.
"I just don’t understand why I’m allowed to go into my bus with up to 72 kids, but yet I can’t go into a small business," she said. "Why, you know, like it’s not safe to go into a small business and I feel it’s not safe in my bus."
The school bus driver said she is worried about catching the disease or passing it on.
"I'm worried about an outbreak and not being social distanced on our buses, it can happen. You have these kids all in different schools, different groups of kids and then they’ll all be together. So I’m worried that it’ll actually spread like wildfire," Lacourse said.
At the beginning of the school year, families had the option to opt-in or out of bus services. Seguin said in the Nipissing Parry Sound Districts, it has remained fairly steady since September.
"We’ve been looking at about 15 per cent opt-out rate and it’s been fluctuating throughout the year. Of students coming in and out at the secondary level, but it remains pretty close to that 15 per cent."
Seguin said since buses resumed in September, the number of incidents of infection have been rare and for the most part, students are doing their best to keep everyone safe while getting to and from school.
This is something that Lacourse agrees with but said it still adds extra responsibility and stress to drivers.
"It honestly depends. Like some days it’s better than others," she said. "You know, just like us, they get tired and they might forget the rules and try to take the masks off. We have to make sure, if we catch that, we have to tell them to put that back on. Make sure that, you know, they’re not taking it off in their seats. Again, because our seats are high, we don’t know for sure unless we can actually see them."
She said that some solutions to help make school transportation safer might be smaller bus sizes and drivers picking up for only one school instead of multiple.
"We do follow the protocols, but because of the fact that we’re not socially distanced I really don’t feel like it’s enough," she said. "[If] you could have maybe one child per seat maybe… doing something like that I feel would be more beneficial then just throwing us in these buses with full-packed buses. It doesn’t make sense."
However, with schools scheduled to resume on Monday, officials are just asking students to wear their masks, follow the rules and do their part to slow the spread.