A shortage of drivers has caused daily bussing delays for Muskoka Catholic schools, leaving parents, guardians and students overwhelmed and frustrated.
Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) sent an email to families on March 19 announcing that the Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium (SCSTC) would be coordinating transportation for Muskoka Catholic schools starting in September. The region’s Catholic schools previously received services through the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. The change was meant to “streamline and improve the delivery of transportation services,” said the email to families, but due to a shortage of drivers, bussing delays are now a daily occurrence.
“They told us that it would be a good change. Children would spend less time on the bus and be home quicker,” said Gravenhurst resident Deanna Luckasavitch, whose two children attend Monsignor Michael O’Leary Catholic School in Bracebridge. “We only found out on the first day of school they did not have enough drivers and there would be delays.”
Since school started, buses have been delayed everyday in the morning and evening, Luckasavitch said, with some delays as long as three hours. Her children end up exhausted after getting home close to 6 p.m., she said.
In order to avoid her son missing taekwondo, she’s gone to the school and picked up her kids instead of waiting for the bus. Other parents have had to do the same to keep from missing after-school activities like dance or hockey, she said, but work commitments make it hard to adjust to the delays.
“It’s stressful on parents and children,” Luckasavitch said. “Kids are tired. Parents are trying to work knowing their kids are stuck waiting at a school, worried about the colder weather coming.”
John Barbato, chief executive officer and general manager of the SCSTC, said the consortium is working with their Muskoka operator, Wheelchair Accessible Transit Inc., to mitigate delays and bring in enough drivers to fill the void.
“We know it’s not an ideal way to begin a school year, and we apologize profusely to families,” Barbato said. “We would recommend that they monitor our website for delays and download our delay app to receive the most up-to-date information on delays.”
While they’re hoping the situation continuously improves as they hire and train more drivers, there’s no particular timeline for when families can expect delays to let up.
Allen Morrison, controller of Planning, Facilities and Student Transportation Services for SMCDSB, sent an email to families on Sept. 14 to address the ongoing bussing issues. Morrison apologized on behalf of the school board and said they’re working with the consortium daily in an effort to expedite the hiring of new drivers.
“The simple fact is that the process of hiring, licencing and training drivers is extensive and quite involved,” Morrison said in the email. “Currently, the operators have several drivers in various stages of the hiring process – some awaiting Ministry of Transportation approval for licencing and/or background checks and others in the process of completing their training. In addition, the operator continues to actively recruit new drivers.”
Staff shortages are nothing new in Muskoka, and the shortage of bus drivers is a provincial-wide issue extending back years. School Bus Ontario (SBO), a non-profit organization that provides advocacy and education services for school bus fleets and their owners, points to the contract system as the source of the problem. Bus contracts are awarded to operators that place the lowest bid, suppressing pay and making it harder to attract new drivers, according to SBO.
Though the driver shortage is an issue affecting communities across the province, Morrison said that it doesn’t justify the situation with SMCDSB and it doesn’t mean they’ll stop working to fix the issue as quickly as possible. On the other hand, it does limit the school board’s options to address the local shortage.
“The provincial driver shortage makes it difficult to draw upon resources and drivers from other jurisdictions,” Morrison said. “However, our board is continuing to look at other alternatives, ideas and solutions to help alleviate the pressures on an interim basis until enough drivers are hired to adequately service our area.”
To see up-to-date details on delays, parents and guardians can visit the Simcoe County Student Transportation Consortium’s website.