More than two weeks into the school year, Mandy Velema is still having to leave work to drive her kids to and from school, despite being registered for bus service.
“It’s irritating, because I have to be at work for 8 a.m., and my kids are standing outside alone, waiting for a bus that is supposed to be there a quarter after 8 in the morning, and it doesn’t show up at all, so then I have to leave work to go and get my children,” says Velema.
Velema’s two children attend Monsignor Michael O’Leary Catholic School in Bracebridge. As the family lives outside of town, Velema says it takes her 30 to 40 minutes to leave work, pick up her kids, drop them off, and return to work. When the bus does show up, she says it’s not much better.
“This morning, the bus didn’t show again; we called the bus line, they couldn’t tell us where the bus was or what was going on, so they sent another bus,” says Velema. “My daughter and my son both missed two classes before they even got to school this morning.”
Velema is not the only parent feeling frustrated. Bus delays and cancellations for Monsignor Michael O’Leary, St. Mary’s, St. Dominic, and St. Peter the Apostle have been a common occurrence since the school year started, typically ranging from 15 minutes to 90 minutes. One delay on September 10th was listed as 180 minutes, or three hours.
The four schools are all part of the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB). Until June, they had shared bus routes with schools in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board (TLDSB), provided by local companies Campbell Bus Lines and Hammond Transportation.
In March, the Catholic board announced in a letter to parents and staff that all of its transportation would be managed by the Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium (SCSTC) starting September. According to the letter, the change would allow for board-specific safety training, improved service, and improved wait times, as well as eliminate the need for students to transfer between buses.
After a request for proposals, the consortium awarded a five-year contract to service the four schools to Toronto-based bus company Wheelchair Accessible Transit (WAT). Consortium CEO John Barbato says WAT had the “best value” when looking at safety, service, reliability, and price, and that they didn’t expect to be affected by the provincial shortage of bus drivers.
“We did not anticipate delays, but unfortunately due to a driver shortage issue we’re facing up there, we’re experiencing some now,” says Barbato. “It’s not an ideal start to the school year, and we’re profusely apologetic for the inconvenience to families, but we are working hard to improve on it.”
Edith Wallis, WAT’s local Division Manager, says the Gravenhurst location has been actively hiring since it opened in June.
“I did my due diligence: I put up flyers, we did a huge campaign all over the radio, in the papers,” says Wallis. “In a normal world, which we don’t live in anymore, that would have been more than enough time for us to get a couple of big classes, get people in, and get them all trained up and ready to go. We would have been running nice and smoothly.”
Wallis says she’s been trying everything around the clock to get drivers on routes, including weekend training sessions and reaching out to other local companies to borrow drivers. Aside from the provincial school bus driver shortage, she says the general labour shortage in the region does not help matters.
“It’s not just us: unfortunately with us it’s putting a huge impact on the schools, and we’re trying to get this rectified, but if you go anywhere in Simcoe-Muskoka, you’ll see a sign every 20 feet, ‘hiring, needing staff’,” says Wallis. “It’s everywhere, everybody needs more employees.”
Jack Matrosov, WAT’s owner, says it also doesn’t help that the company is a newcomer to the area. According to Matrosov, WAT hasn’t built up the name recognition or local presence needed to attract drivers, and many of the drivers they do have are trained but stuck waiting for the Ministry of Transportation to approve their bus driver licences.
“Typically it’s a turnover of 24 hours, once they pass [background checks] and get everything in the system,” says Matrosov. “But what we’ve seen here, we’ve got about seven or eight drivers, if not more, that are literally sitting there waiting to get their licence.”
Speaking to the MyMuskokaNow newsroom on September 10th, Matrosov said he estimated everything would be sorted by the end of the school year’s second week. Wallis says that with the current situation, she’s hoping the problems will be solved by October.
In the meantime, students don’t have to worry about being penalized for missing classes. In a September 14th letter to parents, the school board apologized for the delays, acknowledging the provincial shortage:
“Please know that the fact that this is a province-wide issue, does not justify the seriousness of the situation nor does it lessen our resolve to fix this issue as quickly as possible for our students and families,” the letter read.
Pauline Stevenson with the board says the schools are being as accommodating as possible.
“The students would not be faulted in any way, shape, or form for coming in late,” says Stevenson. “The principals know exactly when the buses are supposed to be there, how late they are, and they’re there to receive the kids and get them to the classrooms as quickly as possible when they arrive.”