A Kingston mother is sharing her concerns after learning that her daughter is sitting three students to a seat on her daily school bus ride.
“She is an only child, and the other two girls weren’t related to each other. So, one bus seat was being used by three different kids from three households and three different bus stops,” said Kelsie Maillet. Maillet said there are 67 students on her daughter’s bus, which has a maximum capacity of 72.
According to provincial guidelines for reopening Ontario’s schools, what Maillet’s daughter is experiencing is in line with regulations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, school boards can operate buses beyond the one student per seat that had been previously suggested, and run closer to capacity “in order to support return to school five days a week.”
Students are also required to sit in assigned seats with a recorded seating plan, which would assist with contact tracing in the event of COVID-19 incident. “Students who live in the same household or are in the same classroom cohort should be seated together,” the guidelines say.
Maillet said she is aware of the provincial guidelines, but is concerned that the busing situation compromises the integrity of the other safety guidelines in place.
“You go through all these precautions, but then you shove 60-some kids that don’t really know each other, who come from all areas of a bus route onto one little bus. Well, there you go,” she said.
“I know it’s regulations, that’s what [the bus company] had told me…. It’s something people need to be aware of, especially with COVID-19 numbers increasing.”
Reaching out to Public Health, the board, the school, the bus company & the bus driver
Concerned about what this looks like for her family, Maillet called Kingston Frontenac Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) Public Health on Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2020 to speak to a nurse. She said the nurse recommended against seating that many kids together.
“When I spoke with Public Health they said no way was it acceptable,” Maillet said. Public Health has confirmed to the Kingstonist only that they received the call and advised Maillet to contact the school board or Tri-board student transportation services.
Next, Maillet called the Algonquin Lakeshore Catholic District School Board (ALCDSB). “They told me to call her school and speak with her principal. I did so, and he informed me that it all had to be through the Tri-Board [student transportation services]. So I called them, and they then informed me that her bus was through Stock Transportation, and I would need to call them. So, I did.”
One driver reportedly quit over capacity concerns
Stock Transportation advised Malliet there was nothing they could do, and that seating arrangements went through the driver. So, that afternoon Maillet went to pick up her daughter from the bus, where she disembarks at the last stop.
“I spoke with the driver. I was expecting him to toe the company line, but in fact he informed me that the drivers don’t make the seating arrangements,” she said.
He told her that, at the beginning of the school year, Stock Transportation gives them the seating arrangements, that he was new to the job this year, and the second driver to be assigned to the route. The first driver had already quit, he said, over capacity concerns.
“The bus driver was very nice and said my daughter could sit in any seat that was free with one other person, he had no problem with it,” she said. “He said he was shocked himself when he discovered that out of 72 seats, his bus had 67 kids on it. He was expecting to have half of that.”
Provincial guidelines stipulate that as physical distancing may not be possible on buses, students in grades four to 12 are required to use non-medical masks, and students in Kindergarten to grade three are encouraged, but not required to wear masks.
Calling for local action
Malliet said more needs to be done by local entities to address the crowded buses.
“They’re not adding more bus routes or more buses, not figuring out which kids really need the bus or which kids are just taking the bus because mom and dad don’t want to drive them and pick them up,” she said.
Maillet has no choice but to send her daughter on the bus, she said. Her daughter is on an Individual Education Plan (IEP), so homeschooling is not a good option. Meanwhile, Maillet doesn’t own a car and cannot afford to send her daughter in daily taxis. “They could contact parents and figure out if anyone really can drive their kids to school,” she suggested.
“In a way, it’s been resolved, but it really hasn’t been resolved because there are still 67 kids on a 72 person bus. That’s just the one bus, apparently all the buses are like that,” she said.
Maillet was also not happy with how difficult it was to get answers. “It took me all day, five phone calls and a talk in-person, before I finally got something resolved. Everyone seemed more interested in passing the buck and putting off to someone else rather than taking the issue on and dealing with it,” she said.
The Kingstonist has reached out to Stock Transportation for comment. At the time of publication no response has been received.
UPDATE – Oct. 1, 2020: The Kingstonist has received the following statement from Edward P. Flavin, Communications Manager at Stock Transportation.
“We have worked tirelessly with our customers to ensure that the safety of our employees and our passengers remains our number one priority.
“Our buses are cleaned and disinfected twice a day, once after our morning routes, and then again after our afternoon routes. In line with PHAC recommendations, we are screening our team members for COVID-19 symptoms on a daily basis prior to the start of their first shift of the day. Each team member is provided PPE in accordance with PHAC guidelines and has received instruction on how to properly don and doff the PPE. Every employee is required to wear a non-medical facemask while at work, including when interacting with students on and around the bus. In line with provincial guidelines, physical distancing is maintained between the driver and passengers.”