Driver shortage causing yellow bus delays for Edmonton schools

Some Edmonton parents are having to deal with late buses in both major school divisions as the industry grapples with a driver shortage.

David Melara’s two children started school this year in the Spanish bilingual program at John Paul I Catholic Elementary School.

But entering the second week of classes and facing school bus delays of up to 90 minutes each morning and afternoon, Melara decided to move them.

“It was a really tough decision,” Melara said, expressing frustration that there was not more notice leading up to the school year that it would be an issue.

Melara’s children started at a new school Monday within walking distance.

“It doesn’t offer the Spanish program, but it’s still something that we can send our kids to and be comfortable knowing that they’re going to get to school on time.”

Edmonton Public Schools says the average delay is around 45 minutes for affected routes. On Sept. 8, the division posted online that it had been notified that continued delays were to be expected in the coming weeks.

A spokesperson for Edmonton Catholic Schools said that on Monday five per cent of routes were delayed, anywhere from five to 90 minutes. They said before the shortage the division was told bus carriers would be able to handle their needs as well as those of other Edmonton area school boards.

It’s now looking at combining some routes.

Tom McGratton, vice president of Golden Arrow, says employees are working hard to make up for the shortfall as the carrier recruits more drivers. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The situation developed suddenly, according to Golden Arrow vice-president Tom McGratton. He said the contractor was confident in its workforce but saw a drop-off in early September.

“Something happened over the long weekend and we had a lot of people call in not coming back,” he said. Around 20 routes are now short a driver.

Operators have had to double up on routes while qualified office staff have left the depot to help out. McGratton himself has even been behind the wheel recently.

“We’re working as hard as we can to try to recruit people, bring them in and get behind the wheel.”

He said shortages have been an increasing problem in the industry for years, made worse by the pandemic.

“One of the things we’re identifying is that it’s a part-time job and in today’s world, people aren’t looking for part time — they’re looking for full time, they got to make money.”

Pandemic pressures

Cory Sandstra, Edmonton operations general manager for Southland Transportation, said in an emailed statement the problem is industry-wide across Edmonton and northern Alberta.

“Multiple factors are impacting the driver shortage, including availability and extension of CERB benefits, drivers moving to full-time work, continued concern with rising COVID-19 numbers, and anxieties related to health risks associated with COVID-19 variant exposures.”

Cunningham Transport director of operations Laura Doroshenko said many drivers stepping away are from an older demographic.

Others that have not returned include parents who have chosen homeschooling or people who need full time-work.

Training requirements make driving school buses a hard sell, she said.

“It’s a three-week course in order to train to learn how to drive a bus, which is a part-time job,” she said. Drivers run morning and afternoon routes but COVID-19 has all but eliminated chartered field trips.

Doroshenko said carriers would love to pay more but the money just isn’t there.

“It is a huge problem,” she said. 

“And it is a continuing problem that I think we seriously have to look at together as a province to try and figure out what else we can do to make this a more enticing job for people.”

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