No capacity changes for school buses this fall

SOUTH DUNDAS – As local school boards plan for the return of students to class this fall, there have been no details available on how students will get to and from school. That picture became clearer when the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario released its return to school plan August 14th.

“Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario is working closely with the CDSBEO, school bus operators, and the local health units to develop strategies and measures to help minimize the spread of COVID-19,” said the board document.

According to the CDSBEO plan, students will be riding on school buses at, or close to, pre-pandemic capacity levels. Bus operators for STEO use a combination of 20, 54, and 72 passenger buses, along with private van drivers.

Students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will not be required to wear a face mask while on a bus, but use of a mask is encouraged. Mirroring provincial school rules, face masks are required for all Grade 4-12 students while on the bus. Exceptions for medical conditions or students with special needs who cannot wear a mask.

There will be assigned seats with students who live in the same household or who are in the same classroom cohort being seated together. There will be seating charts and other records to assist with contact tracing if needed.

Bus drivers will wear personal protective equipment including masks and gloves when possible. Full face shields are not allowed due to visibility concerns.

Twice per day, bus companies must clean high contact surfaces including handrails, seats, seat belts, floors, windows, and any other parts of the bus that are commonly used.

Buses can be cleaned using fogger-type misting machines with disinfectant like hypochlorous acid to sanitize the vehicle. That is a commonly used, naturally occuring, medical-grade disinfectant that is approved by Health Canada for use.

Bus companies are being encouraged to keep drivers on the same bus and the same route to limit mixing contacts.

The board is encouraging parents to have their children walk to school (if close enough), drive their children to school, or use private transportation where possible to “ease pressure on transportation demand.”

In the event that health units implement physical distancing measures for school buses, STEO will see a “significant” reduction in vehicle capacity. Vehicle capacity would drop by two-thirds, and the CDSBEO says it would have to switch to alternative day or week schooling for students.

A full size bus would go from 72 person to 24 person capacity with one person per seat. A 52 person bus would drop to 18, and a 20 person bus would drop to eight. The first seat behind the driver would be kept empty, limiting capacity further.

At publication time, no details about transportation were available from the Upper Canada District School Board. Officials at the board referred questions to STEO.

STEO chief administrative officer Janet Murray said that it is continuing to work with the boards, bus operators, and the ministry to finalize its COVID-19 transportation protocols.

“While we are still awaiting confirmation on a number of items, we hope to have something to share with families very soon to support their planning,” Murray said.

A driver shortage in the region is adding pressure to operators.

Murray said that STEO officials expect the driver shortage to be “exacerbated” by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been and will continue to reach out to our bus operators regularly throughout the summer to determine if there will be an impact to transportation service as a result,” she said. “We hope, of course, that will not be the case and are working to put protocols in place to support driver and student safety on the bus.”

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