Thousands of Ottawa parents are still scrambling to find a way to get their kids to school after their buses were suddenly cancelled because of a driver shortage.
About 7,500 students were affected after the bus service for both the Ottawa public and catholic school boards cancelled 300 routes just before schools opened this week.
School started for both boards Sept. 5, and many parents were only informed their kids’ bus was cancelled the week before. Some didn’t even find out until the first day.
The Ottawa Student Transportation Authority said the city’s rural west end is among the hardest hit areas after a bus company that was to operate 36 routes pulled out.
OSTA’s general manager Vicky Kyriaco said the city’s school bus agency won’t be able to start looking for solutions for another week.
“It’s definitely a difficult situation,” said Kyriaco.
“The important thing for us right now is making sure that our regular system is stable before we start putting in all kinds of changes and amending our planning.”
But shortages could last through the entire school year, said Kyriaco.
“Chances are this is going to last weeks, maybe months, maybe all year,” she said, adding the OSTA will prioritize providing bus runs for children in rural areas.
“We’re only going to be able to look at pockets here and there, where we can help the kids who have the greatest need.”
She said Ottawa is currently short approximately 130 drivers.
“That’s the type of number that you just don’t really recover from,” said Kyriaco.
She said OSTA has lacked drivers for several years, accelerated by the pandemic and a competitive labour market.
As COVID-19 hit they saw a big drop in the number of retirees signing up to take the wheel, a problem they had not anticipated. The labour shortage that emerged post-pandemic was also tough.
“There are so many jobs available that the bus driver job is competing with many, many other jobs,” said Kyriaco.
The average pay rate for bus drivers employed in Ottawa is between $19 to $22 an hour.
Kyriaco said OSTA would like to pay drivers more, but there’s a gap between the funding they get from the provincial government and their operational costs. The government wants them to trim even more.
She said OSTA’s budget is $6.5 million from just last year and the ministry of transportation said another $20 million needs to be cut $20 million in next four years.
“Based on a budget of like $74 million, how do you remove $20 million without removing service? That just doesn’t compute,” said Kyriaco.
A shortage of school bus drivers is not unique to Ottawa with schools in Alberta, Sudbury, Ont., and Toronto all reporting issues.
Kyriaco said OC Transpo and the public transportation industry in general are also in need of more drivers.