Hundreds of children in many parts of the Greater Toronto Area are left stranded or waiting for as long as two hours for school buses as boards of education struggle with a shortage of drivers and signal that the delays won't end as students enter the third week of the academic year.
Although typical delays happen at the start of every school year as parents and children adjust to new routines, this year has been far from ordinary.
What many are describing as an unanticipated shortage of bus drivers has resulted in students waiting for hours on school playgrounds, principals using their own cars to pick up and drop off pupils, taxis being called by schools to help out and parents scrambling at the end of the day to pick up their stranded children.
"We realize there's a lot of frustration from parents and students that have been impacted," said Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the Toronto District School Board. "We're working as hard as humanly possible to get those kids to and from schools."
The TDSB, Canada's largest board, says about 685 children are still affected by the driver shortage. The Toronto Catholic District School Board has close to 1,300 students who will still face school-bus delays. The problem is widespread: Other boards, including the Peel District School Board and the Halton District School Board, have students waiting up to an hour because of the driver shortage.
Those close to the situation say bus drivers work part-time, earn low wages of around $55 to $75 a day and prefer to work in their own communities. When bus companies receiving contracts change hands or bus drivers are given a new route outside their community, many workers leave.
School boards generally do not submit their routes to bus companies until a couple of weeks before the school year starts, and Toronto especially saw a number of drivers leave. School boards say they did not know the extent of the shortage until the first few days of school, but they have been working with bus companies to add new drivers to the roster.
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said her staff has been closely monitoring the situation. The government has increased transportation funding to school boards by 40 per cent since 2003, Ms. Hunter said in a statement.
But the president of the non-profit Ontario School Bus Association described the increased funding as "misleading" and said it's not enough for wage increases or to maintain buses. School boards don't necessarily have to use the money from the province toward transportation costs.
"Student transportation lives on the bottom 5 per cent of the education budget," said Leslie Cross, president of the organization. "Rightly so, they are putting funding into the classrooms and into teachers. But transportation is always fighting for that last 5 per cent. It needs to be treated better and they need to have a fairer understanding of the cost."
Politics aside, parents like Sofia Zlatar just wants her four-year-old daughter to travel to and from school worry-free. It takes as many as two hours, well past 5 p.m., for her daughter to get home from her Toronto school, Winchester Junior and Senior Public School.
There have been times when Ms. Zlatar has had to drive to the school to pick up her daughter because the bus has not arrived. "It is a long day," she said. "She's very excited [about school], but very exhausted now at the same time."
Maria Korenowsky-Ferro, principal of St. Lawrence Catholic School, also in Toronto, understands the frustration among parents. In the first week of school, she drove to the bus stops and sat with the kids and their parents to ensure that they were safe until a school bus eventually came by to pick up the students. She has told parents to make alternative arrangements until the situation is resolved.
"Our parents put great faith in the transportation system. I think parents are disappointed," she said. "But this is the situation and we have to deal with it. There doesn't seem to be solution right now, so we have to take it day by day."
School boards say bus companies are training and bringing on more bus drivers. They believe that the situation should be resolved within the next few weeks. The TDSB will review the situation in the months ahead.
"We have seen service improvements as newly trained drivers enter service with the bus carriers," said John Yan, a spokesman for the Toronto Catholic board. "But it is still a fluid day-by-day situation."