Sep 16, 2020

Early this week, a warning went up on the Tri-Board Transportation twitter feed.

“There will likely be more bus delays and cancellations this year due to the pandemic. Please ensure you are signed up to receive notifications, either by email, the app, or twitter.”

Gord Taylor, Chief Executive Officer for Tri-Board, said that the tweet was not put out in response to any current difficulties Tri-Board is having delivering students to and from school, on the 620 routes within its jurisdiction, it is meant only as a precautionary note to remind parents that they should “always have a plan B” where their children are concerned.

“The same thing can happen in any year. A bus can break down, a snow day can come along with or without warning, and parents need to be aware of these possibilities,” he said, in an interview early this week from the Tri-Board offices in Napanee.

He said he understands that driver shortages have been plaguing school transportation corporations across the Province, but luckily thus far, the situation in Hastings, Lennox and Addington, and Frontenac Counties and the City of Kingston, where Tri-Board operates, has been different.

“We’ve had a couple of situations already where a driver wasn’t available but in the end we’ve been able to find a fix and all of our routes have been operating every day.

That hasn’t been the case in a number of other jurisdictions across the province, where bus cancellations have been more common.

Tri-Board Transportation was set up in 2006, and handles the transportation needs for the Limestone Board, The Hastings-Prince Edward District School Board and the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board. Twenty-eight privately owned bus companies provide service on the 620 Tri-Board bus routes.

Taylor said that it is “always complicated in September, we are always into overtime trying to manage all of the requests we receive. But this year we have the added layer of a pandemic. On top of everything else we are dispensing antiviral sprays and Personal Protective Equipment. I didn’t envision I would be helping chain boxes of sanitizer and PPE into our warehouse when I came to this job in 2013, but that’s reality this year, for all of us at Tri-Board.”

“But, he added, things have gone a lot better so far than we were expecting”

Fortunately, only a small number of the drivers working for the bus companies that serve Tri-Board have decided to stop driving this year, even though the Tri-Board drivers fit within the typical demographics for school bus drivers in Ontario.

“60 over 60, [60% of the drivers over 60 years old], is an expression used in the school bus world, and our drivers fit that description. Up in Renfrew it's more like 65 over 65. Drivers have to consider their own health, and the health of spouses and other family members who may be more vulnerable, when they decide whether to keep driving or to retire, and we have to respect that” he said.

Early in the summer when there was talk of putting on extra bus routes and extra drivers, in order to run half full bus loads, Taylor said that the people running school bus services across the province told provincial officials and public health officials that it would be impossible for them to make that work.

“There already is a shortage of drivers, and even if we could recruit a lot more drivers, the testing facilities were down or delayed so we could not get them licensed, and with the manufacturing slowdown, new buses were not available either. We have been working hard for many years to keep the buses full in order to keep the cost of transportation down. Trying to reverse that, over one summer, couldn’t be done,” he said.

What the bus companies are doing is trying to group students within families together, and within classes, and students are all assigned the same seat on the bus every day. And the seat behind the driver is being left empty for the safety of the drivers. Buses are cleaned and disinfected at the end of the day and at the end of the morning run, and mask wearing is mandatory for grade 4 and up, and recommended for children in kindergarten to grade 3.

Steve Dunham, and his wife Jen, operate Dunham Bus Lines, serving schools in Central and North Frontenac, said that he thinks the situation in Tri-Board has been pretty good in the first couple of weeks of school.

“I think we are doing okay in Tri-Board, I know in my company, everyone has come back to work, which makes it much easier. Public Health has made the decisions about what we need to do, and we are following their rules. Everyone is wearing masks, and it turns out the younger kids are able to take to it pretty well, so they are wearing them as well.

“I think we are all doing our part, just like the grocery store workers and the service station workers have been doing their part, the bus drivers and the school staff are all doing their part to keep things going and keep everyone safe. I think it helps that the caseload has been so low in our communities. So far everybody has been doing a great job.”

Gord Taylor said that in a normal year much of his work life is spent trying to deal with all the logistics of running 620 bus routes. This year, the primary focus is different.

“This year, infection control trumps everything. In schools, infection control is more important than following the curriculum, and for us it is more important than logistics right now.”

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