Students board a school bus on the second day of a new school year in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Families face challenges in getting students to and from school

Changes leave some without bus service

For nine years, Mike Nemeth’s children have taken a bus from their home in Copper Ridge to Holy Family Elementary School in Porter Creek.

Last week, just hours after Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee announced more buses would be available for the school year to accommodate distancing requirements due to COVID-19, the family was informed the bus would not be available to their two younger elementary school children for the 2020-2021 school year as the family lives outside the school’s catchment area.

Instead they were encouraged to use city transit, drive the kids to school or perhaps carpool.

“I’m really caught in a tough situation,” Nemeth said in an Aug. 20 interview as he described rearranging his work schedule to ensure his kids got to school on the first day of classes.

It is a situation a number of families are faced with as the territory alters student transport. On its website, the Yukon government has stated students eligible for the bus are those who live more than 3.2 kilometres by the nearest passable road from their school and if they are attending their attendance area school.

“Based on available space on the bus, the Government of Yukon will also consider accommodating requests to bus students beyond the eligibility requirements in the following order of priority: Kindergarten to Grade 3 students; then Grade 4 to 7 students who live within 3.2 kilometres of their attendance area school; then students who attend school outside of their attendance area; and finally special requests, including busing to stops other than from home to school and back.”

For Nemeth that meant being told he could fill out a form and be considered as a third priority for school busing, a service he pointed out he and other Yukoners pay taxes for and has been available in past years.

While he contacted Christ the King Elementary School (the Catholic school that would be in their attendance area), the family learned there were not enough spaces available for both children.

Nemeth noted, as well, even if there were enough spaces, it would be a major adjustment to switch schools for his children who are in Grades 5 and 7 and have gone to Holy Family their entire school careers.

While staff at the Department of Education suggested the family use city transit, Nemeth argues that’s “absolutely unacceptable,” pointing out it would involve taking a bus downtown and then transferring buses for the two elementary school aged students to get to school in Porter Creek.

That has left the family taking things “week-by-week”. Along with rearranging his work schedule, the family has also been grateful to friends and neighbours who have volunteered to drive for the immediate future.

In an emailed statement, Department of Education spokesman Kyle Nightingale reiterated the eligibility requirements for school bus service and noted the territory is working with Standard Busing to have an additional three buses added to the current 41 operating in Whitehorse for the current school year.

“These additional buses will provide more flexibility as we ensure eligible students have busing, including Whitehorse 10-12 students who are learning in-class for half the school day, FH Collins Grade 8 students travelling to Wood Street, students travelling to relocated experiential programs and as we work to accommodate students requesting busing who are beyond the eligibility requirements, based on the order of priority,” he said.

He went on to note the department is working to address concerns and following up with families directly with updates on adjustments that may be made.

“Families are encouraged to check bus schedules regularly at the start of the school year as timing adjustments are made to routes,” he said.

Nightingale also highlighted the option for high school students to get a city transit pass through the Department of Education rather than using the school bus system through an ongoing program offered by the city and territory. The city has indicated transit can continue to accommodate students this year, he noted.

City transit manager Jason Bradshaw said while there was an increase in volume on day one of the school year, it was a manageable increase with the neighbourhoods of Copper Ridge and Riverdale having the busiest routes. All passengers were able to be accommodated on the buses.

The program between the Department of Education and the city, which provides high school students with transit passes, is at about 75 per cent of where it was last year when approximately 700 passes were provided to students on a monthly basis.

Bradshaw pointed out that many families may be choosing to drive students to school and the half-day schedule for Grades 10 to 12 in Whitehorse also likely played a role in bus capacity.

While the bus capacity had been reduced to 12 earlier in the year to accommodate distancing, the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health recently approved plans to increase capacity, while also advising passengers should wear masks, though it is not mandatory. Not all passengers are choosing to wear masks, but there does seem to be many who are, Bradshaw said.

With all seats full there’s room for 40 to sit and another approximately 20 passengers could stand.

The city will be keeping track of numbers as the school year continues and will make adjustments as needed or if there are recommendations by the territory’s chief medical officer of health, Bradshaw said.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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