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Shortage of bus drivers in Southeast Cornerstone division

Costs to compensate parents for driving children to school are way up
school bus getty
School bus drivers are needed in SE Cornerstone, especially substitute drivers

WEYBURN – A shortage of full-time and substitute bus drivers has been made even worse by COVID, with the result that more parents are driving their children to school to supplement the bus routes in Southeast Cornerstone, trustees were told at their monthly board meeting on Wednesday.

In his bi-annual transportation update, transportation director Andy Dobson reported that Cornerstone has 155 bus routes, including 22 contracted routes.

The department was able to reduce rural routes by three, in Fillmore, Wawota and Rocanville, but they had to add three routes for Legacy Park Elementary in Weyburn in order to make school start times in the mornings.

“This has been a learning curve. We have one bus getting to WCS just on time, close to when the bell rings. Other than that, it’s going fairly well,” said Dobson.

Ridership is up in the first half of the school year, he noted, at 3,724 compared to 3,281 at the end of June, and 3,361 in January of 2021. Part of the reason, he noted, is the walk zone was reduced from one kilometer to 750 metres, which contributed to the need for more buses to Legacy Park.

The bus route for Carievale and Carnduff remains unfilled, and there is a shortage of substitute drivers in all areas of the southeast.

Once someone does apply to be a driver, it takes four to six weeks to get them trained and licensed to drive a school bus, noted Dobson.

The process includes the online application and driver abstract, a criminal record check, in-class training and six hours of training on the road before they go to be tested by SGI to get their licence, and then they need a medical check as well, which can be difficult to get these days.

“One of the issues we’re having right now is with subs, especially with the new Omicron variant. If one student on a bus has it, everybody’s considered a close contact,” said Dobson.

The public health rules right now state for unvaccinated drivers, if they are positive for COVID, they have to isolate for 10 days or until they are symptom-free, but if they are vaccinated, they isolate for five days if they have COVID.

“The shortage is everywhere. A lot of senior drivers retired when COVID came in,” said Dobson. “If anybody knows someone who wants to be a bus driver, send them to me.”

He added they are reaching out through school principals and social media for anyone who could be a substitute driver, even caretakers or EAs in schools if they want to top up their hours by filling in as a driver.

Meantime, the division is paying parents to drive their kids to school, with around $85,000 paid out so far. Dobson noted the budget had been for $8,500 set aside to pay parents if they are unable to supply a bus, and most years he never has to use this money at all.

There were 625 bus route cancellations as of January 2022, compared to 384 a year ago, or 570 as of the end of June 2021.

Broken down by reason, nine were cancelled for half-days for mechanical issues, while weather only contributed to 40 half-days and 16 full days, compared to 195 in January of last year.

The telling statistic is that a lack of substitute drivers contributed to 63 half-days and 497 full days of cancelled bus routes, compared to 252 as of the end of June 2021, and 182 days as of January a year ago.

The average one-way bus ride is 48 minutes, with the longest one-way bus ride being 90 minutes, from Weyburn to Oungre, and from Estevan to Torquay.