WATERLOO REGION — School boards across Ontario will need to find millions of dollars in unbudgeted funding to help keep students safe from COVID-19 if schools reopen this fall, and that includes the bus ride to and from school every day.
Bus routes will need to be adjusted, vehicles will need to be cleaned every day, and masks will be required, but no additional funding is coming from the Ministry of Education to help cover those costs.
During a special board meeting Monday night, trustees heard bus cleaning alone could add up to about $600,000 over the first three months of the school year, or roughly $50,000 per week.
“This will be a pressure point for us in the upcoming year,” acknowledged Matthew Gerard, treasurer of the Waterloo Region District School Board.
“The ministry has been very clear that there is no additional funding to support COVID at this time.”
According to a government memorandum sent in June, the WRDSB will receive about $18.7 million from the province for student transportation in 2020-2021, a slight increase over the $18.6 million it received last year.
The Catholic board will receive about $7.5 million, up from about $7.2 million last year.
Both increases are mainly due to increased student enrolment at both boards. It is the only funding the school boards receive to pay for student transportation.
The Ministry of Education is projected to distribute more than $1 billion to school boards for student transportation in 2020-2021 if students return to the classroom — just $12 million more than it did last year.
Overall, the public board estimates it will face at least $7.6 million in unbudgeted COVID-19 costs, including $2 million to buy personal protective equipment for the first three months of the year, $900,000 for additional custodial supplies over three months, and $660,000 for signage and barriers over the entire year.
“This is disappointing to hear, that there are not additional funds from the ministry for reopening due to the additional costs that our board is going to … incur for reopening,” said public board vice-chair Joanne Weston Monday night.
Trustee Karen Meissner asked where the funding would come from, and Gerard said those details still need to be finalized but the board may need to run a deficit this year.
The ministry did not respond to a series of questions sent by The Record.
Catholic board chief financial officer Shesh Maharaj told The Record the board expects to spend half a million dollars pre-ordering protective equipment and supplies, and has budgeted an additional $1 million to order more supplies.
This number could easily double, however, since there is “too much flux in the environment to say with certainty where it will end up,” the chief financial officer said. The cost of cleaning buses will be shared by the two boards, based on ridership.
“Despite the challenges this may pose for us financially, we would like families to know that we have all been working around the clock to prepare for school in September,” Maharaj said.
School boards are weighing three potential options for September — continued remote learning, normal in-class learning with enhanced public health protocols in place, or a hybrid model with students alternating between classrooms and home.
Get the latest in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from The Record, including up-to-date coronavirus coverage, with our email newsletters.
Sign Up Now
The province is expected to pick a scenario around Aug. 4, and local plans must also be approved by the government.
If students do return to class in the fall, bus schedules and routes will need to be overhauled since only one student will be allowed per seat to encourage social distancing (though children from the same household will be permitted to share seats). Students and drivers will also be required to wear masks.
This means large school buses will be limited to just 24 students, which “essentially halves our ability to transport students at the secondary level, and cuts our ability to support elementary transportation by two-thirds,” said Gerard.
It’s expected Waterloo Region will use a total of 465 school buses this coming year — more than half (265) will be large buses, along with 100 mini buses, and the rest will be split between wheelchair buses and vans, according to Student Transportation Services of Waterloo Region, which manages busing for both boards.
About 32,000 students ride a bus to school, or roughly a third of the region’s approximately 90,000 students.
Benoit Bergault, the general manager of the student transportation service, said it will need to “be creative to find efficiencies” and revise bus routes during the pandemic. He doesn’t expect the service will be able to add any more buses to the current fleet, and said it will be easier to draw up new routes if students attend school on staggered days.
Training new drivers and retaining existing ones — many of whom are older or retired — has also been challenging during the pandemic.
It will take about an hour to sanitize each bus every day, and drivers will have some responsibility for sanitizing touch points between runs, Bergault said.
Households with children in bus zones are being asked to complete an opt-out form if they decide they do not want them riding a bus this year. This will help the boards know how many kids will need a bus, and where they live.
“Capacity is very limited, so if (they) don’t intend on putting students on a bus they should opt out,” Bergault said. Forms have already been distributed to public board households, and the Catholic board is expected to send them out this week, he said.
The form can also be found on the busing service website, and households can opt back into the service if they so choose.