By Charlie Senack
A month into the school year, more yellow school bus routes are being cancelled, impacting students who attend St. Mother Teresa High School. Parents say they were left in the dark over the situation and are looking for answers.
It comes after dozens of routes have been cut city-wide, primarily impacting suburban communities. Many high school students who live in Riverside South and attend Merivale High School have also seen their routes cut, leaving them to take public transit which can take up to an hour and a half each way.
As of early September, roughly 90 yellow bus routes were cancelled after drivers could not be found, leaving over 2,000 students without transportation. Now that number is around 3,000.
The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) said the shortage could take months to sort out, blaming COVID for a big part of the problem. Citing safety concerns, OSTA says many of their older drivers opted not to return, causing a shortage of drivers. Other reasons for the shortage include driver pay and location of routes.
Crystal Pruys, who has two children at St. Mother Teresa High School — a son in Grade 8 and a daughter in Grade 10 — says she’s disappointed with how the situation was handled. She found out her children’s route would be cancelled only days before it came into effect. She was not provided any instruction on how her kids could get to school. They did, however, receive a free presto pass for OC Transpo.
“I have nothing against public transit, but we really haven’t got any information about it,” said Pruys. “It was like ‘your kids are going to get a presto pass, here you go, don’t know where the stop is, have a nice day.’ We are not happy and neither is our bus driver.”
Pruys said her children have never taken OC Transpo before, and has concerns with them being in a bus full of strangers — especially during COVID. Because she leaves for work early in the morning, it’s not possible for the Barrhaven mom to drive them to school. It would be about a 45 minute walk each way, and not sustainable during Canadian winters.
She also has concerns over how long the bus trip will take when Barrhaven is known for unreliable public transit.
Susan Randall, whose children also attend St. Mother Teresa High School, said her kids came home in tears over the news.
“The thought of putting a 12-year-old on a city bus daily breaks my heart,” she said. “There will be no more safe haven after the long day at school and no more peace of mind for parents — just more anxiety for everyone and more risk of exposure. And now we are just expected to add this to the long, ever expanding list of things that COVID-19 has taken from our children.”
For Pruys, she’s most upset over how little the bus drivers were made aware of the changes. Her kids’ bus driver — who she now calls a family friend — didn’t even know one of her routes was being cancelled. She only found out after Pruys showed her the email.
“They have not told the drivers anything. We have a good relationship with our bus driver and she has let me know how they haven’t been given any information. She didn’t even know that it was going to be her last day,” said Pruys. “They say this is a bus driver shortage, well clearly there is a reason for that. Maybe OSTA should up their game and let their employees know what’s going on instead of finding out from a parent.”
In total, two routes from St. Mother Teresa have been cancelled, and the drivers have been reassigned new routes for elementary schools. Pruys said OSTA didn’t even provide the drivers with new route maps until the last minute, leaving them no time to prepare.
On the condition of anonymity, Pruys’ kids’ bus driver sent a statement to the Barrhaven Independent expressing her concerns with how the situation was handled.
“As one of these bus drivers, I absolutely see first hand how critical the driver shortage is,” she said. “However, it’s not a good reason to give these students and parents no time to prepare their children for public transport. Most of my kids (the kids I drive) have never taken OC Transpo. They have no time to practice the weekday route, get the timing, or for parents to feel secure in their travel plans. A week would have made these families feel better about their children’s anxiety and safety levels, and it’s unfortunate this wasn’t better considered”.
The Barrhaven Independent reached out to OSTA for comment, but never heard back. However, in a press conference a few weeks prior, they said high school routes were being cut to make sure elementary school students still had access to public transit.
Barrhaven Catholic School Board Trustee Spencer Warren told the Barrhaven Independent that while the situation isn’t ideal for everyone, he’s very impressed with how OSTA handled the situation. He says they have worked hand in hand with trustees to try and find solutions to an almost impossible situation.
“I know OSTA has put a focus on trying to mitigate risk and higher impact areas when allocating buses, such as rural areas, high construction areas, and age of students — elementary getting a higher priority,” said Warren. “We recommend parents review resources to learn about how to use public transit, the travel planner and safety aspects of OC Transpo. We also recommend parents to ride the bus with the students for the first time, to practice their routes.”
Warren also says it’s not just St. Mother Teresa which has seen yellow bus routes cut. The problem is also impacting St. Joseph High School which has even greater disadvantages at play.
“The disadvantage St. Joe’s has is that there isn’t really a safe OC Transpo bus stop for the school other than at RioCan,” he said. “Plus, Greenbank isn’t ideal for walking, biking or driving for that matter, with all the construction going on, especially when winter arrives. I’ve been collaborating with Councillor Jan Harder on other options, which she is going back to the city planners to brainstorm ideas.”
But for Pruys and her kids it’s more than just losing a bus route; it’s losing a friend. Their driver has been with them since elementary school and has gone out of her way to make the kids feel loved. Even on her last day as their driver, she wrote individualized cards for every student to let them know one final time how special they are.
“She knows everything about the kids,” said an emotional Pruys. “She knows their birthdays; she knows their favourite colour. She talks to them as if they are her own kids and it makes them feel comfortable and safe. It’s not an easy job, but she is one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met.”
It’s unclear whether or not this is a permanent cancellation, but it will at least be in effect for months as the hunt for new bus drivers is on. OSTA has admitted that since July, 102 permanent yellow bus drivers have quit, and only 46 new recruits have been added to the roster.
“The big message was about getting back to normal school life and transportation is a big part of that. What we all forget is that we are still in the middle of a pandemic,” said Vicky Kyriaco, general manager of the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority, in a press conference. “We understand that there are some long trips and we get that it’s uncomfortable and that it’s not ideal. But at the same time, we need to focus our attention on the kids who really, really need transportation.”