All boards can learn from school bus ‘cri­sis’

Om­buds­man re­leases re­port on prob­lems; boards say they’re bet­ter pre­pared

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - AL­LI­SON JONES

School boards across On­tario can learn from a bus­ing cri­sis in Toronto last Septem­ber, in which thousands of stu­dents were stranded and some went miss­ing, the prov­ince’s om­buds­man says.

A re­port re­leased Thurs­day by Paul Dube found that more than 2,600 stu­dents were left at bus stops in the first few weeks of school last year be­cause of a driver short­age.

At least three ju­nior kinder­garten stu­dents went miss­ing for var­i­ous lengths of time and bus de­lays and dis­rup­tions were par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing for stu­dents with special needs, he said. A nine-year-old girl with autism spec­trum dis­or­der was picked up and dropped off at “wildly in­con­sis­tent times,” once ar­riv­ing home three hours late, so dis­tressed by the de­lay that she had soiled her­self, Dube found.

“This was no mere in­con­ve­nience — there were se­ri­ous cases where vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren were at risk,” Dube said. “Par­ents had to scram­ble to ar­range trans­porta­tion, and some spent ter­ri­fy­ing hours not know­ing where their chil­dren were, when they were dropped at the wrong spots.”

There were clear early warn­ing signs of trou­ble months be­fore the start of the school year, but of­fi­cials failed to ad­e­quately plan for con­tin­gen­cies and com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively, he said.

New bus­ing con­tracts were awarded in Fe­bru­ary 2016, but op­er­a­tors didn’t know the ac­tual routes un­til much later in the year and they were re­peat­edly re­vised even into Au­gust, he said.

“Two new bus op­er­a­tors, un­fa­mil­iar with the Toronto land­scape, were awarded hun­dreds of new bus routes, while fa­mil­iar op­er­a­tors were shifted to dif­fer­ent geo­graphic ar­eas,” Dube wrote in his re­port. “Some driv­ers dis­sat­is­fied with their new routes peremp­to­rily quit or changed em­ploy­ers at the last minute.”

That made it dif­fi­cult for the com­pa­nies to as­sign and re­tain driv­ers. Once the school year started, over­whelmed bus driv­ers — un­fa­mil­iar with rou­tines, routes and se­cu­rity pro­to­cols — dropped stu­dents off alone, at wrong stops, or with strangers on the street, Dube wrote.

The schools boards also failed to prop­erly com­mu­ni­cate the is­sues to par­ents, he said.

The Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board ac­cept the om­buds­man’s rec­om­men­da­tions and say they don’t an­tic­i­pate sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges like those seen last year.

The boards say some changes they have al­ready made in­clude giv­ing bus op­er­a­tors routes ear­lier in the plan­ning process, in­stalling new bus rout­ing soft­ware and launch­ing an on­line trans­porta­tion por­tal to al­low par­ents to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion and get email no­ti­fi­ca­tions if there are any school bus can­cel­la­tions or de­lays.

Dube’s 42 rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude al­low­ing bus op­er­a­tors to bid for spe­cific routes, de­vel­op­ing a pro­to­col to in­form par­ents of de­lays and can­cel­la­tions, re­quir­ing op­er­a­tors to give driv­ers on­go­ing train­ing on en­sur­ing cer­tain stu­dents get dropped off to a par­ent, and en­sur­ing all bus routes can real­is­ti­cally be com­pleted in the al­lot­ted time.

The om­buds­man’s of­fice re­ceived hun­dreds of com­plaints about school buses in the past two years from fam­i­lies served by boards around On­tario. “While they may not have ex­pe­ri­enced prob­lems on the same scale as Toronto, I hope that these rec­om­men­da­tions will also serve as a guide to other boards seek­ing to im­prove their trans­porta­tion poli­cies, pro­ce­dures, and prac­tices,” Dube said.

COLIN PERKEL, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO

Last year’s prob­lems caused “se­ri­ous cases where vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren were at risk,” Dube said.

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