The head of a union representing thousands of school bus drivers is warning that student transportation could end up as the “weak link” in the safe return of students to the classroom this fall unless the government acts now to put a number of mandatory safety precautions into place.

Debbie Montgomery, who is the president of Unifor Local 4268, told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday morning that she is growing increasingly concerned by the lack of provincial regulations when it comes to school buses.

She said that while the Ford government published a 21-page guidance document on the resumption of in-person classes, it only dedicated “several paragraphs” to school buses, leaving individual boards to come up with their own policies.

The result, she said, has been a hodgepodge of rules and regulations that fail to ensure the safety of drivers and students.

“They have got to get it together and make sure that this safe return really happens,” she warned. “We don’t want to be the weak link in the system and that is what it is looking like right now.”

Montgomery said that she has already been contacted by numerous drivers who are considering not coming back in the fall because what they are hearing about the work conditions they will be greeted by “isn’t making them feel that they are safe.”

She said that many bus companies will only be providing drivers with one mask per day, despite the fact that they mostly work split shifts. Drivers will also be responsible for cleaning and disinfecting their buses, something that Montgomery said they have not been trained for and will receive no additional compensation for doing.

Furthermore there are no plans to limit the number of students on buses in most boards, according to Montgomery. That means that some drivers could be expected to transport as many as 74 students at a time.

“We know we have concerns about the number of children in classrooms. Well that bus will carry the equivalent of three classrooms so it really goes against all the public health advice we have been advised about for many months now,” she warned.

Union has had no discussions with provincial officials

Montgomery was joined on Tuesday by a half-dozen bus drivers, who also spoke out about their concerns about the lack of provincial regulations.

One of those drivers, Michelle Lavallee, said that parents and children in her board have been asked to socially distance at bus stops but will then be “shoulder to shoulder” on her bus, an approach that she said “makes no sense.”

Another driver, Angela Sarjeant, said that he is concerned about how some of his colleagues will manage to regularly clean and disinfect their buses in the era of COVID-19 and is worried that the added responsibility could result in some good drivers leaving their jobs.

“We are drivers foremost and we have a lot of elderly drivers that are now required to do a lot of physical work to clean and sanitize the buses, which is going to be very difficult for some of the drivers to do and they might even request to not be driving anymore,” he said. “We might be losing very dependable people who look after all your children. Sanitization should be required to be done by outside companies.”

Montgomery, whose union represents approximately 2,500 bus drivers, said that her members are eager to get back to work but want to do so safely.

She said that she has so far had no contact with Education Minister Stephen Lecce but remains willing to participate in discussions about how student transportations can be made safer.

“We feel we are a very integral part of the school system and so far we haven’t really had much of a voice and nobody is really looking at what this means to school bus transportation,” she said.

It should be noted that the Ford government is spending $40 million on hiring additional school bus drivers and providing them with personal protective equipment. It is also requiring that there be assigned seating on all school buses with students in the same class cohort at the secondary level required to sit together.

Speaking with reporters at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that his government is doing “everything possible” to make sure school buses are kept safe as students return to the classroom. He said that he has been in “constant contact” with representatives for the School Bus Association of Ontario and committed to the $40 million in new funding so that school boards can have “the latitude to do whatever it takes to support our drivers.”

“We are going to continue to be there for them,” he said of the province’s school bus drivers.