School bus drivers demand protection

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Safety protocols established for B.C. school buses during COVID-19 have not gone far enough to reassure some drivers with health concerns, including those working in the Gulf Islands School District.

Several Salt Spring school bus routes were cancelled Tuesday until further notice as drivers with concerns have elected to stay home and the district doesn’t have the staff to replace them. The main issue is the lack of plexiglass or other barrier between drivers and students. 

School bus driver Alisa Coles has made a public plea for help via her Facebook page, in which she called B.C. cabinet ministers to account for their failure to provide a safe workspace. She said she feels vulnerable and that barriers and reduced seating capacity are required.

“As of last week, 200 people (staff and students) of a school district in Ottawa are in isolation after a COVID-19 outbreak traced back to the school bus,” Coles wrote on Sept. 13. “I’d like to know which pencil-pusher behind which desk has decided to wager me and our passengers as collateral damage in this vast experiment to restart the economy.”

According to the B.C. Ministry of Transportation, there is nothing from their department to stop barriers being installed: “Provincial regulation permits the use of a school bus barrier and approval is not required, provided school bus safety standards are met.”

Barriers are also optional according to Transport Canada’s federal guidance for school bus operations during COVID-19.

The ministry notes there are specific vehicle manufacturing and safety standards that must be met to ensure passenger safety on school buses.

“It is recommended that owners and operators contact their bus manufacturer to ensure safety standards are not affected by any modifications done to the bus,” communication from the ministry states.

The district was set to meet with CUPE union reps on Monday for further discussion. However, district superintendent Scott Benwell said SD64 is in compliance with all the regulations they are aware of, which include those issued by Transport Canada, the BC Centre for Disease Control, WorkSafe BC and the Ministry of Education. 

“Going beyond those regulations can be problematic, because they could have unintended safety consequences,” Benwell said. 

Middle school and high school students are required to wear masks on school buses under provincial order.

Benwell added any district employee has the option to take leave of their usual position for health reasons as an “accommodation.”

“A number of staff are being accommodated now. We have a successful history of doing that through the spring with both CUPE and GITA [the Gulf Islands Teachers’ Association],” Benwell said. 

The school district apologized for the inconvenience and said it was working to address the driver shortage in an email sent to families Tuesday afternoon. 

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