Local school bus operators are scrambling to get ready for the school year, however representatives for the bus companies say they are prepared for additional costs and measures to deal with transporting students during the COVID-19 pandemic and believe they can provide for social distancing on buses without expanding their fleets.

“We are not currently anticipating a significant increase in the need for vehicles at this point in time,” said Janet Murray, General Manager of Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario. “Right now the provincial guidelines are allowing for near capacity of vehicles and we know that is an issue of great debate and concern for a lot of people so we are trying to take measures to keep loads as minimal as we possibly can.”

The STEO is the transportation consortium for both the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario and the Upper Canada District School Board, and all parties expect there will be less students using buses this autumn than normal, which should allow for enough space for social distancing. Some parents are expected to turn to online learning, while others will drive their children to classes.

“Both of the boards that we service have reached to families to look at alternate forms of transportation – at least during this pandemic period – and we’re happy to say that a lot of families are determining this is something that is feasible for them,” Murray said. “That’s going to help us allow for additional capacity on the school vehicles and will probably mean that we don’t need to look at accessing a larger fleet in order to provide the existing level of service.”

While extra vehicles may not be required, the need for school bus companies to provide their drivers with personal protective equipment and perform regular sanitization of vehicles will add significant costs for the operators. The STEO and bus companies throughout the province are currently working with the Ontario government on financial support to help cover those costs.

“We have a pretty good relationship with our service providers and we know it’s been a stressful time for them,” Murray said. “We don’t have final confirmation (from the provincial government) on what additional compensation might look like for things like PPE and sanitization but we know that is being contemplated at the provincial level.”

Leduc Bus Lines in Rockland is currently holding meeting with its drivers to train on COVID-19 regulations and policies for the coming school year. The company has been meeting with both the French and English school boards it services and believes the policies put in place will allow it to operate normally and maintain social distancing on its vehicles.

“We’ve been instructing the drivers on how to clean the buses in between runs and once a week the buses will come into the garage to be completely disinfected,” said Leduc Bus Lines spokesperson Joann Laberge, who noted the PPE and regular cleanings will hit the company’s bottom line. “It’s not just the salaries, it’s the expense of all the products – masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, disinfectant – it all adds up.”

At Campeau Bus Lines, which services school boards throughout Western Quebec and Eastern Ontario, owner Jacques Campeau is confident all of the measures taken in both provinces will keep students safe. He noted bus companies in Quebec have had some experience already in dealing with COVID-19 measures, as schools in the province remained open for several weeks in the Spring after Ontario schools had shut down.

“In Quebec we ran for six weeks in the Spring and it went very well,” Campeau noted. “In Canada people have followed the rules and we are well positioned compared to other countries around the world. We will adapt.”

Anyone wanting more information on the regulations for school bus transportation in Eastern Ontario can visit the Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario website . The full STEO COVID-19 Transportation Response Plan can be found here.