School bus cancellations are piling up in Ontario, with transportation providers saying fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic are compounding an existing bus driver shortage across the industry.

Twelve bus routes were cancelled in both the Grey-Bruce and Thunder Bay regions as of Wednesday.

In Sudbury, Ont., the student services consortium announced Monday that 23 routes will not run for at least the first week of school because not enough drivers returned to work.

Providers cited the pandemic and related health concerns as reasons for keeping drivers off the job.

“The school bus industry has been struggling with a driver shortage for more than five years and the global COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the problem for this school year,” Student Transportation Services of Thunder Bay said in a Tuesday statement.

The statement said the average age of a bus driver in the area is 57, with some in their 70s, and many drivers have decided to remain off the job due to age-related health risks from COVID-19.

“We respect their right to make this decision regarding their safety. Unfortunately, we are now faced with the unfortunate situation of having to suspend some bus routes at the start of the school year.”

Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268, which represents bus drivers, said the full picture of driver retention and recruitment is still shaking out and may not be clear for a few weeks.

But she said that lack of clarity around safety protocols and access to personal protective equipment has contributed to the situation unfolding across the province this week.

“Now we’re hearing that routes are just being cancelled. There’s nothing else they can do,” Montgomery said by phone Wednesday.

“They can’t attract new people and they can’t keep those they had. The vehicle might be there but the operator is not.”

She said around 60 per cent of bus drivers are over the age of 60 and many are feeling pressure from their families who argue a job paying between $16 and $20 per hour is not worth the health risk.

“When you can’t feel confident in your protection, that’s huge,” Montgomery said. “Every day, there’s at least another person saying, ‘I can’t risk this.'”

The cancellations come weeks after concerns were raised the union, asking for better health and safety guidance for the industry.

Montgomery said the union’s requests, including calls for greater compensation for new duties like taking attendance and making sure kids stay in their assigned seats, have not changed.

Parents in Thunder Bay and Grey-Bruce are being advised to check online in the evenings and mornings for any new cancellations.

Brandi Gowan, a mother in the Bruce County area, said the uncertainty around transportation is making a difficult back-to-school year even more stressful for families.

“Families are already feeling stress … from the pandemic, stress around job security and stress from sending their child back to school, and now we have to worry about busing and whether we have anyone to look after or drive our children into school,” Gowan said in an email.

Busing has posed challenges as classes resume across the country, with concerns raised about physical distancing on packed routes and drivers on strike in Winnipeg this week.

Even for families with operational bus routes, sending kids off on a bus and into the classroom has been an emotional transition.

Jennifer McLean, a mother based in Oro-Medonte north of Barrie, Ont., said her Grade 10 daughter texted from the bus Wednesday morning reporting that little had changed on her route, where she was seated a few inches away from another rider.

With health issues preventing her from driving her kid to school, McLean said the initial reports are scary as their small family bubble grows “exponentially” with the return to school.

“I hugged her goodbye this morning and she knows that she can’t hug me when she comes home,” she said in a telephone interview. “We don’t know how to deal with this.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2020.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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