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School bus drivers lead a caravan through downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 13, 2020.MIKE BLAKE/Reuters

School boards in Canadian cities like Toronto and Calgary say physical distancing will be hard to guarantee on many of their school bus routes.

Students who spend their days in physically distanced classrooms could be sent home on buses that are at full capacity and carrying children from different cohorts. Boards across the country have created protocols to ensure student and driver safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some bus drivers say they are still feeling unsafe.

Kevin Hodgkinson, the general manager of the Toronto Student Transportation Group (TSTG), said that it will be “near impossible” to achieve physical distancing on the group’s buses. TSTG works with seven companies that drive nearly 50,000 students to Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board schools every day.

Mr. Hodgkinson expects that about 40,000 students will be riding school buses this year, many of which will be full, seating about 70 kids.

Students will need to wear masks at all times while on the bus unless a medical condition prevents them from doing so. Siblings will be seated together, but buses could also be carrying students from multiple cohorts.

“Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with transportation, you’re [also] dealing with geography,” Mr. Hodgkinson said. “So we’re picking up students from any of the groups in the geographical areas going to a particular school.”

Buses will be organized by cohorts, with the oldest students sitting in the back, and youngest students sitting at the front. Bus drivers will be given personal protective equipment, and have an empty seat separating them from students.

Rob Robson, a bus driver working for Durham’s French Catholic school board, said that buses at his Whitby school could also be at full capacity.

“I’m concerned. I’m 60 years old, I’ve got a little bit of high blood pressure, but there are other drivers that are older that have far more severe conditions,” he said. Sixty per cent of the province’s school bus drivers are over the age of 60, according to the Ontario School Bus Association (OSBA).

The direction Mr. Robson has received has been disparate; the school bus company that employs him says students who do not have a mask must still be boarded. A friend working for another company will be provided with medical masks for students who forget theirs. Both drivers drop students off at the same school.

“That’s the problem, there is no flow of information,” Mr. Robson said. “[Drivers] want to go back, but without information, how do you make a decision?”

Some drivers in his region have considered taking leaves of absence. On Thursday, OBSA president Nancy Daigneault estimated there could be an 8-per-cent to 10-per-cent driver shortage this year.

“We’re really hoping that the announcement by the Minister [of Education] and the Premier will help alleviate that,” Ms. Daigneault said.

On Wednesday, the Ontario government announced that $70-million in federal funding would be allocated to student transportation, specifically to fund the Driver Retention Program and route protection. Ms. Daigneault said route protection could generally involve paying for cleaning supplies or drivers for the time they spend cleaning buses, but that she is awaiting further details.

In Alberta, the Calgary Board of Education says its school buses have been capped at 48 students as a result of adjustments that are unrelated to the pandemic. But the board’s manager of transportation services, Brenda Gibson, said this would still not allow two metres of physical distancing between students.

All drivers and students on their buses will wear masks, and boarding will be done from back to front, oldest to youngest. Siblings will be seated together. Drivers will clean buses at the end of their shifts, but a single shift often includes multiple routes at different schools, Ms. Gibson said.

“We have prepared as much as possible and we understand that we may face new or changing information,” she added. “We will be flexible and responsive to what our health officials ask. We have done everything we can to prepare for our students returning.”

In Ontario, Unifor Local 4268 president Debbie Montgomery, who represents 2,500 bus drivers, said officials should have been planning for school bus safety since spring.

“They are the forgotten quotient, but probably the most important and the most risky part of this plan,” she said.

“Every driver feels that way. We should have been talking [about school buses] way before this.”

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