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Muskoka Post Staff
As Ontario’s leading school bus driver union, Unifor warns that urgent action is needed for wheels to turn on school buses in September. The health and safety of students and school bus drivers must be a key priority as the Ontario government and school boards work to develop plans to return to an in-school setting.
“This situation must be addressed before there can be a return to school in September. A full re-opening, whether the provincial state of emergency is lifted or not, is at jeopardy,” said Unifor National President Jerry Dias.
Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has said, “all stakeholders" are important to the re-opening of the school system but engagement with the drivers of school buses, an often forgotten but integral part of the school day, has been minimal.
“School bus drivers are critical to student transportation and doing it in a safe manner with new protocols in place is of the highest concerns for these workers,” said Unifor Ontario Regional Director Naureen Rizvi.
School buses are not designed the same as transit buses. Busses carry up to 72 primary students with just one passenger access located directly beside the driver. Seats are designed in compartments with multiple students to a seat separated by a narrow aisle from students across. In many instances, the same bus serves multiple schools on the same route. Additionally, special needs passengers often require drivers working very closely with riders.
Many drivers are retirees and possible exposure to COVID-19 without proper training, social distancing regulations, and regular sanitization of the buses may prevent them from being able to run their routes. The situation is worsened by the fact that many drivers have not received their scheduled retention payments, forcing them to look for other work. With the risk of fewer drivers returning, combined with social distancing potentially facilitating the need for additional buses and drivers, Unifor warns of a looming shortage without immediate intervention by the Ford government.
The Ontario government has failed to make driver retention bonus cheques available to qualifying school bus drivers from 2019. This payment was to give drivers with near perfect attendance a payout of $1000 per program duration but the Ford government has yet to make the payment to school bus drivers for the period of September 2019 thru December 2019, with payment due in March 2020. The next payment period, which ran from January 2020 thru to June 2020, was interrupted when schools closed in March. The program administrators have not communicated to the drivers if they will receive payment for this period.
Many school bus drivers in the province rely on the Driver Retention Program (DRP) to help make ends meet. Without it, some may leave the industry contributing to an increased shortage of school bus drivers come September. Unifor is calling on Premier Doug Ford to commit that the drivers will receive full payment for the program.
“Unifor is asking these questions on behalf of our members and the thousands of non-union school bus drivers in the province,” said Debbie Montgomery, President of Unifor Local 4268. “A serious discussion must be had with school bus drivers, as partners in education, about what September will look like and whether their safety will be prioritized.”