TORONTO — School boards across Ontario can learn from a busing crisis in Toronto last September, in which thousands of students were stranded and some went missing, the province’s ombudsman says.
A report released Thursday by Paul Dube found that more than 2,600 students were left at bus stops in the first few weeks of school last year because of a driver shortage.
At least three junior kindergarten students went missing for various lengths of time and bus delays and disruptions were particularly challenging for students with special needs, he said. A nine-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder was picked up and dropped off at “wildly inconsistent times,” once arriving home three hours late, so distressed by the delay that she had soiled herself, Dube found.
“This was no mere inconvenience — there were serious cases where vulnerable children were at risk,” Dube said. “Parents had to scramble to arrange transportation, and some spent terrifying hours not knowing where their children were, when they were dropped at the wrong spots.”
There were clear early warning signs of trouble months before the start of the school year, but officials failed to adequately plan for contingencies and communicate effectively, he said.
New busing contracts were awarded in February 2016, but operators didn’t know the actual routes until much later in the year and they were repeatedly revised even into August, he said.
“Two new bus operators, unfamiliar with the Toronto landscape, were awarded hundreds of new bus routes, while familiar operators were shifted to different geographic areas,” Dube wrote in his report. “Some drivers dissatisfied with their new routes peremptorily quit or changed employers at the last minute.”
That made it difficult for the companies to assign and retain drivers, and once the school year started, overwhelmed bus drivers, unfamiliar with routines, routes and security protocols, dropped students off alone, at wrong stops, or with strangers on the street, Dube wrote.
The schools boards also failed to properly communicate the issues to parents, he said.
The Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board accept the ombudsman’s recommendations and say they don’t anticipate significant challenges like those seen last year.
The boards say some changes they have already made include giving bus operators routes earlier in the planning process, installing new bus routing software and launching an online transportation portal to allow parents to access information and get email notifications if there are any school bus cancellations or delays.
Dube’s 42 recommendations include allowing bus operators to bid for specific routes, developing a protocol to inform parents of delays and cancellations, requiring operators to give drivers ongoing training on ensuring certain students get dropped off to a parent, and ensuring all bus routes can realistically be completed in the allotted time.
The ombudsman’s office received hundreds of complaints about school buses in the past two years from families served by boards around Ontario.
“While they may not have experienced problems on the same scale as Toronto, I hope that these recommendations will also serve as a guide to other boards seeking to improve their transportation policies, procedures, and practices,” Dube said.