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Bus driver shortage leaves Calgary kids on routes without dedicated drivers waiting hours for a ride

When Tiffany Robinson signed her daughter up for yellow school bus service this year, she expected the 12-year-old would have a reliable way to get to and from school each day, but that hasn’t been her experience. 

A province-wide driver shortage means like many others in Alberta, since the school year began last month Robinson’s daughter’s bus route at the Calgary Arts Academy charter school hasn’t had a dedicated driver.

That means the bus is almost always late, sometimes hours, and Robinson either has to driver her to school, or they wait extended periods for a bus to show up. 

“I’ve been late for work in the mornings because I’ve had to drive her to school, so it’s affecting my job. My boss is not happy about it,” she said.

90 minute waits

The mother says that nearly every afternoon parents are informed by email that the bus will be picking the kids up from school up to 90 minutes after classes are over, which means students are getting home hours after they’re supposed to.

“My daughter is usually at school worried and wondering how she’s going to get home. Or I’m at work trying to figure out what I can do and if I can get someone to pick her up, or if I have to leave work,” she said.

Calgary Arts Academy deputy superintendent Michelle Stonehouse says only one of its six routes with Southland Transportation is without a dedicated driver, and while she knows their school is only being impacted in a small way compared to others, the situation has been frustrating for everyone. 

A province-wide bus driver shortage continues to impact public, Catholic and charter schools in Calgary. (David Bell/CBC)

“In the past it’s happened occasionally if there was a bus driver sick this this year this year is different than the other years,” she said. 

And when students are stuck at school waiting for their bus to arrive, Stonehouse says teachers are too. 

“We have staff that has to stay,” she said. “It makes a long day for everyone.”

CBE reduces transportation fees

The Calgary Board of Education says ridership levels have returned to pre-pandemic levels, and there are more than 20,000 students registered for the service. Right now 41 of its 606 routes are without a regularly assigned driver. 

To help mitigate the impact on students and schools the CBE has taken a few steps, including expanding their service providers beyond their primary provider, Southland Transportation. 

“As an example, Calgary Transit was temporarily able to dedicate resources to chartering 15 routes for CBE schools,” said CBE spokeswoman Joanne Anderson. 

The board says that due to the ongoing disruptions to services, the CBE has reduced transportation fees by 20 per cent for the school year — families were informed of this decision on Thursday. 

The Calgary Catholic School District says nine of its 235 routes are also without a driver, and it is recommending that all families who rely on the service have a back-up plan should service issues persist. 

“This could include carpooling, parent pick-up and other solutions; we will try to provide as much notice as possible. We thank everyone for working through this challenging time with us,” said spokeswoman Sandra Borowski. 

She said they may consider fee reductions for affected families moving forward. 

Driver recruitment continues

Southland Transportation, the primary yellow school bus service provider in Calgary, says its working very hard to fulfil its commitments.

“Unfortunately at this point in the game, it’s still quite a challenge,” said senior director of operations, Kyrie Geurts. 

Southland Transportation senior director of operations Kyrie Geurts says the company continues to recruit more bus drivers routes remain unfilled. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“In this case when we’re looking for coverage we ask our current drivers to assist on picking on extra routes. So, as soon as they finish their regularly assigned run, they’ll go around and do a second route for us to pick up any kids that need still need to get to school.”

Geurts didn’t know how many Southland routes remain without a driver, but said “they’re significant and the number of drivers we’re looking for are still quite high,” adding that recruitment efforts are ongoing.

Funding for parent-provided transportation

Calgary’s STEM Innovation Academy charter school parents were told if they choose to opt-out of school bus service this year they might be eligible for funding through Alberta Education, said co-founder Lisa Davis. 

Alberta Education says it provides funding to public, separate, Francophone and charter schools to support transportation, and school authorities can decided if they want to use that funding to offer parent-provided transportation funding instead of school bus service. 

“Transportation funding provided by Alberta Education may be used to support parent-provided transportation for all public schools — not just public charter schools,” said ministry spokeswoman Katherine Stavropoulos.

“Usually this funding is only offered when yellow bus service cannot be provided. The 2.4 kilometres eligibility distance criteria applies to all student transportation whether they are in the public, separate, Francophone or public charter school system,”

She said Alberta Education does not have information about how many parents have applied for this type of funding, as it is handled at the school level. Davis did not respond to that question from CBC in regards to the academy’s uptake on the program. 

The province says it understands the challenges being faced by transportation providers and school districts, and this is an issue being felt in jurisdictions across Canada. It says it’s an issue that can be attributed, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic and fluctuation in the economy over the past few years.

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