The child’s mother waited at her daughters designated downtown Rockland bus stop for 30 minutes, expecting a half hour delay. When the bus arrived and her daughter did not get off, she realized something was wrong and walked back home to find an OPP cruiser in the driveway.
According to the parents, their three-year-old daughter was dropped off a stop early and was walking by herself when strangers nearby noticed a girl on her own and called the OPP. Their daughter, aware enough of her surroundings, was able to direct police to her home, more than a quarter-kilometre away.
Though the young girl was unharmed and not particularly upset about the police escort home at the end of her first day of school, it was a traumatizing experience for the parents sending their only child off to school for the first time.
“Given the severity of the screw up, it worked out in the best possible way,” said the girl’s father, whose name is withheld to protect the identity of the child. “There are people whose kids go to school and don’t come back. My mind has gone through a million different scenarios about what could have happened.”
STEO, the consortium of bus operators responsible for organizing school buses for the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB) and the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO), is experiencing a driver shortage requiring trained administrative and operations staff to fill in when routes do not have a full-time driver. The route in question was being filled by a mechanic at the time the girl was let off the bus early, according to Janet Murray, chief administrative officer of STEO.
Murray stated they are in contact with the school board and the bus operator to ensure that safety protocols have been are in place and followed.
“There has also been retraining implemented to ensure there is a clear understanding of the protocols for kindergarteners,” said Murray. « Fortunately, there were adults in the area and the child was taken into the care of the OPP and returned home. Regardless, the whole situation must have been very troubling for the parents.”
Murray noted parents should be in contact with the bus operators themselves if their child does not get off when expected. Calling the operator allows gives parents a direct line to the drivers, but Murray maintains that STEO is there for parents and an emergency line is available through the front desk. The girl’s parents, however, were never informed, by the school or otherwise, that contacting the bus operator was the best path to dealing with such an issue.
In a statement provided by email, Deanna Peery, superintendent of schools for the UCDSB, defended the situation STEO is facing with regards to driver shortages. “The UCDSB has a very good and long-standing relationship with STEO, our local transportation consortium. The incident that took place yesterday is not a regular occurrence, nor it is one that the UCDSB takes lightly. We understand the pressure bus companies are under with driver shortages, and we will continue to work with the bus drivers to ensure they know who our students are, and the processes in place to keep our students safe.”
“I get more and more mad seeing the driver shortage being used as an excuse,” said the girl’s father. “They are admitting our kids are not safe with the shortage, as somehow fewer drivers means more incompetency, and our kids’ safety is collateral damage to companies offering low wages for what is a challenging job.”
Nick McRae, president of Roxborough Bus Lines, the operator in charge of the route in question, says the driver was very experienced. A complicated route along with kids navigating their first day using the bus makes for a challenging situation, regardless of the driver’s experience.
“Safety is our number one priority,” said McRae. “We take this extremely seriously. It’s important to also note all of the kids who did get off at the right stop and got home safely.”
For McRae, the driver shortage is not an excuse. At Roxborough they are continually trying to improve, provide training and on-board new full-time drivers.
“We all wish we were in a different situation,” he said. “It’s stressful on staff and our drivers. But we are doing a good job and constantly hiring new drivers.”
Driver shortages continue to impact school boards across Ottawa, Eastern Ontario and even North America. According to STEO the shortage can be attributed, in part, to the challenging nature of the job combined with the risks presented by the ongoing pandemic.