Sanitization and ventilation key safety measures on buses, but distancing measures limited

Merna Emara
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The province of Ontario is two weeks from welcoming back their two million students, with no plans in place for physical distancing procedures when riding school buses.

To support a return to school five days per week, the school boards may be required to maximize the utilization of buses beyond one student per seat and operate closer to capacity, according to the Ministry of Education Guide to Reopening Ontario’s Schools. Under these circumstances and when physical distancing is not possible, the use of non-medical masks for students in grades 4 to 12 will be required aboard school buses.

Students in kindergarten to grade 3 will be encouraged but not required to wear masks on student transportation.

As per the Guide to Reopening Ontario’s Schools, students should be assigned seats and a record of the seating plan should be kept to assist with contact tracing in the case of a student or driver contracting COVID-19, with students from the same household or the same classroom cohort being seated together.

Nikki Armstrong, manager of the Rainy River District Transportation Consortium, said in an email that the fleet capacity for the 41 bus routes in the district range from 30 to 72 passengers per bus.

“Weather permitting, bus windows will be opened to increase the ventilation and air circulation inside the bus,” Armstrong said in the email. “Select windows – where deemed appropriate – will be opened a few inches by the bus driver prior to the trip.”

There also other rules will have to follow such as maintaining hygiene before and after riding the bus, physical distancing at the bus stop and not eating or drinking on the bus.

As for bus drivers, most of which are retired seniors, Armstrong said there will be increased disinfecting protocols. Drivers will also be required to wear face masks and reusable face shields will be provided for loading and unloading purposes.

“All school buses will be cleaned and disinfected at least twice daily,” Armstrong said in the email. “Cleaning and disinfection of all buses, including high touch surfaces, will take place after the morning bus route is completed, and again at the end of the day using a virucidal/bactericidal cleaning spray that is alcohol and bleach free, and safe for use around students.”

Tracy Mose, operations supervisor at First Student, declined an interview request from the Times.

To ease the pressure on school buses, Armstrong said other alternative modes of transportation such as walking and cycling are encouraged.

“During these unprecedented times, the Rainy River District Transportation Services Consortium is working closely with Member School Boards, the Northwestern Health Unit, our bus operator partners, and the Ministry of Education to mitigate health risks associated with COVID-19 on school transportation vehicles to the extent possible,” Armstrong said.