A driver shortage is causing delays and forcing Toronto school bus operators to use taxis to transport children to and from class – a move that has caused confusion and unease among some parents.
So far, no bus line has been canceled outright: drivers are taking over, but delays are affecting 1,500 students out of the approximately 45,000 who take school buses each day.
“We debated whether or not we would temporarily suspend routes, but felt it was better if we ran the buses late,” said Kevin Hodgkinson, general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group, which organizes transport services for Catholics and the public of the city. school boards.
Hodgkinson knows parents are frustrated — some children have waited “well over an hour” for a bus — but says the TSTG is trying to keep parents informed of delays. He said it could be “several weeks” before the buses were running properly.
The TSTG works with seven school bus operators that offer service across the city and says about 2-3% of the fleet is driverless. At the end of August, it was advised that about 20 routes — one percent of the total number of routes — had no assigned drivers and were short about 80 back-up drivers.
Companies are training more drivers and trying to attract them from elsewhere in Ontario. The TSTG has contacted licensed companies to help (they find the requirements too onerous) and even contacted a limo service they used years ago, but are no longer in business.
Hodgkinson says parents are notified online when buses will be late. They then decide whether their child will wait for the bus (and arrive late for school) or find another way; most bus carriers also offer a taxi service for children whose routes are served by smaller buses.
The taxi service is reserved for verbal students in grades 4 and above and parents must consent to it. All taxi drivers are licensed by the city and undergo a criminal background check.
Patricia Ocampo says her husband Greg Kramer received a call last Friday from bus operator Switzer-Carty Transportation saying that as of September 12 there was no driver available for the return trip from the their daughter’s school, so he would coordinate Beck’s taxi service for the students. (Her daughter, in Grade 5, is bussed from her neighborhood school to another school in Etobicoke to attend a gifted program.)
Ocampo spoke to other parents whose children take the same bus as her daughter and said they had gotten conflicting information from the company on key details, such as whether taxi drivers would transport the children individually or in small groups and where they would be dropped off.
“It was very confusing,” says Ocampo, adding that it made her feel uncomfortable letting her 10-year-old daughter get into a taxi, which she had never done before. So for now, her husband is leaving work early to pick up their daughter from school, and the couple are trying to coordinate carpooling with other parents.
“The main reason we are uncomfortable stems from the lack of communication and the short notice. If the company had informed us in a timely manner, I would have felt reassured and we could have done what we needed to prepare our daughter.
Aaron Turner, whose son is on the same gifted program, assumed the bus service would operate normally because neither he nor his ex-wife had been contacted by Switzer-Carty. But at 8.50am on Monday he received a call from a taxi driver asking where his son was. The taxi driver said he was waiting for the boy at the usual pick-up point to take him to school, which started at 8.15am.
“It was the first time I had heard of it,” Turner said. “All I thought was, ‘Someone was expecting my son to get in a cab with a stranger. “”
Turner’s son had spent Sunday night at his mother’s house and she had driven him to school on Monday. The parents say they did not receive a call from the bus operator alerting them to the taxi service and did not consent to it, which is why both were disconcerted to learn on Monday that a taxi driver was waiting for their son.
“I was completely shocked,” mother Eleanor Antoncic said, adding that she checked online Monday morning to see if there were any issues on her son’s bus route and that everything seemed normal. “(The taxi service) is not something I would have accepted if we had prior knowledge.”
Jim Switzer, president and CEO of Switzer-Carty Transportation, said he was surprised to learn that neither of the boy’s parents had been contacted and that he planned to find out what happened. . He also said regular school bus service along their son’s route should be restored by the end of the week.
The company has a full complement of drivers, but has had to use taxis to replace sick or furloughed drivers. Switzer said he paid for eight taxis on Monday, but was unsure how many taxis were used on Tuesday.
Switzer urged parents to be patient, saying delays will be common over the coming weeks as bus operators scramble to smooth out routes which also have to deal with traffic and construction.
“We strive to get children to school on time and we are working to find a solution to remove all taxis,” Switzer said. “We are continuously working towards this with training and recruitment.”
In 2016, school bus problems in Toronto made headlines and wreaked havoc on about 2,600 students, prompting Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé to investigate. The following year, its report “The Road to the Problem” cited “systemic and administrative failure” and a breakdown in communication with parents, bus operators and schools.
School boards were blamed for not paying attention to warning signs of a severe driver shortage, and Dubé made 42 recommendations, which the boards accepted.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION