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After being dropped off by school bus, Grade 9 students gather outside Patrick Fogarty High School in Orillia, Ont. on Sept 10 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Big yellow school buses – with almost no one on them – began pulling into the parking lot of Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia, Ont., around 8:30 a.m. Parents, it seemed, even those who had informed the school board that they would be using the buses, had opted out at the last minute.

“I wanted to see how many kids would be using the bus first,” said Jennifer Buttigieg, 41, who drove her two kids that morning. “We’ll try busing next week. But if it’s crowded and cramped, we’ll figure out a way to continue driving them.”

Thursday marked the first day back at Patrick Fogarty since COVID-19 shuttered schools last March. For principal Brian McKenzie, the most pressing safety issue that morning wasn’t the novel coronavirus – it was unusual traffic.

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Patrick Fogarty is in Orillia, a small city of about 30,000, but many of the students are bused in from the surrounding rural areas. About half of the families said they’d be driving instead, posing a logistical nightmare for administrators. The school’s front parking lot is already a busy place in the morning with all the buses.

“We sent out an e-mail about [proper protocols for parents doing drop-off], but I guess I’ll need to send another one,” Mr. McKenzie said as a car cut into the bus lane. A few minutes earlier, another parent stopped at the fork of the roundabout while buses were pushing past on the right.

As schools reopen across Canada, most of the attention has focused on how boards in big cities are coping. But the pandemic has presented a set of unique challenges for country schools, too, including staffing shortages, spotty internet and smaller enrolment at already very small schools. The biggest concern has been busing where physical distancing will be difficult.

Earlier this week in Sudbury, parents learned that 23 bus routes would be cancelled because there weren’t enough drivers. Hours after the notice went out, two more drivers quit.

“Most of them, it’s the fear of the virus and them either bringing it home to an elderly parent or to their children,” said Renée Boucher, the executive director of the Sudbury Student Services Consortium, which manages busing in the region.

The buses use assigned seating to try and limit how many cohorts kids are exposed to each day, but with Sudbury’s integrated busing system, this is especially difficult. One bus may have children from a French school, English school, the Catholic board and public board. Then there’s elementary and high school.

“You could have more than four schools on a bus,” Ms. Boucher said.

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Some kids live in such remote areas that one bus takes them to a transfer location to catch another bus.

“We had a driver shortage before COVID,” Ms. Boucher said. “There are drivers who are training now … [but] my fear is that when flu season starts, every symptom is a COVID symptom, so as soon as a driver doesn’t feel well, that driver is going to have to stay home.”

In British Columbia’s School District 8 (Kootenay Lake), where most of the schools are located in small villages and towns, they haven’t had the kind of mass driver shortages being reported in Ontario, but the board has struggled with staff vacancies.

Superintendent Christine Perkins said that while some rural boards struggle to fill teaching positions, they are fortunate in that the University of British Columbia’s rural teacher education program is based in their district, offering a direct line to recruits.

“The areas that we have had trouble staffing are custodial jobs, maintenance, bus driving. Good paying union jobs,” Ms. Perkins said. (About 30 of the board’s 900 staff members decided to retire.)

Even in remote areas where the risk of catching COVID-19 is extremely limited, the changes are having major effects.

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In a community called Honey Harbour in Ontario, where the local elementary school had just 26 kids last year, only a handful of parents opted to do remote learning, but because of boardwide requirements around class sizes, the school lost one of its three teachers. Now, Kaitlynn Maurice’s children, who are in grades 2 and 3, will be in the same class as junior-kindergarten students. Ms. Maurice is considering switching to homeschooling.

“[COVID-19] is a factor, but the biggest issue is the quality of education … no matter how good the teacher is, my daughter, who is going to be 9, is in a classroom with three-year-olds,” Ms. Maurice said.

In Saskatchewan, Kyle McIntyre is the director of education with the Chinook School Division. His board staffs schools in the Hutterite colonies, where residents live, work and worship communally. The colonies have been linked to multiple COVID-19 outbreaks. At these schools, the board implemented additional safety measures, including temperature checks, before entering the building.

“The issue with the colonies is if we have one student in a school test positive for COVID, it would be an indicator that the virus is spreading in the community. We would immediately shut down the school,” Mr. McIntyre said. That’s not the protocol for the board’s other schools, where a sick child would be sent home and then there would be contact tracing to identify others who should be tested.

In Orillia, Mr. McKenzie says everyone understands how challenging the year is going to be, but they’re just excited to be back. Remote learning, in addition to being lonely for many, also presented technical problems.

“I have teachers who live in internet dead zones. When things went online, they couldn’t upload [lessons]. The board had to make our parking lot a WiFi hotspot. Teachers were in their cars doing work,” he said.

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Patrick Fogarty school, like many, opted to do a staggered start, so only Grade 9 teens were in the building. Avery Markle, the student-council president, was among a handful of older students to help with orientation activities.

“This isn’t how I planned the year to be, but I’m glad to be back. For as long as it’s possible, I’m excited to be at school,” she said.

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