PORT AUX BASQUES – The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) has admitted that its new busing policy, which allows no more than 46 students on a school bus, has reduced provincial capacity by over 6,000 students.
Heather May, Director of Strategic Planning, Policy and Communications stated via e-mail that this has put the NLESD in a very difficult position.
“With just weeks to school opening, as there were not enough available school buses to make up this disparity for the beginning of the school year,” wrote May.
Also finding themselves in a difficult position are parents like Joanie Sheppard. Her 10-year-old son, Christopher, was facing a long walk across Hardy’s Arterial, which does not have a sidewalk, after the school called to confirm he would not get a seat on the bus.
For the single mother, the inconvenience came coupled with a huge safety concern.
Sheppard and Christopher have walked the road together a few times, but since he is autistic she says she has to keep reminding him to stay on the side.
“I don’t have a vehicle and I didn’t have any way to get him back and forth,” says Sheppard. “I started reaching out to people and it didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere.”
On the last Friday before the start of school, she was able to find a ride for Christopher thanks to a helpful neighbour.
“I don’t understand their process really,” admits Sheppard. “I just got a call that said he was ineligible.”
Sheppard says she also doesn’t understand the rules around masks. Children are obliged to wear them on buses but can take them off in classrooms, even if the seats are closer than the two metre recommendation. She says she is feeling a bit frustrated and has found the situation somewhat stressful.
She’s not alone. Social media has been flooded with posts by frustrated parents around the region and across the entire province.
“The District set about reorganizing province-wide student transportation services to accommodate the first 46 eligible students assigned to the current school bus runs, based on the morning bus stop order,” wrote May.
That answer does little to clarify instances such as why a bus stop located over 5 km away from St. James Elementary School and geographically located at the end of a route was somehow designated as a third stop, and forced very young children off the bus while children living closer to school got a seat. Meanwhile families with several children were told some could ride the bus, while others could not.
May says that the NLESD is working to resolve the issue.
“On Thursday, September 3, the Provincial Government announced it would allocate additional funding to ensure all normally eligible students will receive student transportation services by the end of September,” wrote May.
Given that many of the buses must be sourced, purchased and inspected from outside the province, that timeline may be more hopeful than practical. It also remains unclear how many new buses will be sent to this region.
“The District will assign these new resources as soon as possible,” promised May. “In the meantime, unfortunately, some parents must make their own arrangements to get their children to school by whatever means they deem safe.”
Although she’s arranged to get him to school in the meantime, Sheppard is among the many parents hoping for a new bus soon to cover her son’s route.
“I would say I’ll put him on the bus. He really enjoys that.”