Original Published on Oct 20, 2022 at 22:49

School bus mixup highlights safety flaws

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

An East St. Paul family wants answers after their six-year-old son — who boarded his designated school bus on a September afternoon — was still not home an hour later than expected, and no one could tell them where the boy was.

Jon Kovacs, a father of three, said changes in the River East Transcona School Division’s transportation department are necessary in the wake of his youngest child being subject to the perils of poor planning.

“This is avoidable and it turns out it wasn’t a (serious) problem for us — but there are little holes in the safety system that can really open up vulnerability or an opportunity for tragedy,” Kovacs told the Free Press.

Prior to Sept. 7, the Kovacs received details about busing plans for their children. They questioned why their elementary students, both of whom are enrolled in École Sun Valley School, were scheduled to take different routes to the same location.

Kovacs said his wife inquired to get them on the same end-of-day vehicle (they were set up to bus to school together), but the family was informed no changes would be made until late September. In addition to auto-replies, no one was answering the department’s phone line, he said.

The father drove the boys to Sun Valley for their first day.

Eddie, the youngest, was nervous about starting Grade 1 at a new school, Kovacs said, adding the fact he could not take the bus home with his older brother only made matters worse.

After piecing together what happened that Wednesday afternoon — with help from the principal, a bus driver, and his son, Kovacs said Eddie boarded his assigned bus shortly after 3:30 p.m.

Although the principal learned the siblings were being separated and asked a driver to allow them to get on the same bus, the request was declined due to policy, he said.

The father said the Grade 1 student was missing in action long after the family’s other two children came home, each approximately 20 minutes behind schedule, via school transportation.

“I felt that my child was most likely safe — however, the decision to call the police was based on a ‘what-if?’ Now, my wife, she’s a teacher… She will tell you a different story. She was upset. She was worried. She was pacing,” he said.

While noting he is familiar with division bus delays, Kovacs said they decided to call the police to report the boy missing in case he ended up getting off at a wrong stop and was lost wandering a random subdivision or worse.

The parents also left voicemail messages with the school and transportation department.

Eddie was supposed to come home at 4:04 p.m., per the schedule. After being in transit for an hour-and-a-half, he eventually arrived around 5:10 p.m.

Pupils are not supposed to spend any more than 60 minutes on a one-way bus commute, per the Public Schools Act.

The division’s parent portal shows a child’s drop-off and pickup locations, timing and bus numbers. What is not clear to users is if a child is supposed to transfer and whether that switch is successful, Kovacs said.

The Kovacs’ middle child was scheduled to take a direct bus, but the division organized an arrangement for the youngest, who recently celebrated his sixth birthday, to make a transfer at a nearby school. The family only learned about the dual-bus plan the following day.

“I don’t believe that a six-year-old on his first day of school, on his first day of busing, should be 100 per cent trusted to make that happen on his own or her own,” Kovacs said, adding luckily a student his son knew boarded the bus during the transfer period, and told the driver mid-route Eddie was not supposed to be there.

Kovacs said he still does not know exactly how his boy got home.

The following day, superintendent Sandra Herbst wrote an apology to parents.

“On the first day of school, there were a considerable number of delays — some up to an hour long. I am sincerely sorry. There were several compounding factors which contributed to delays; some were beyond the division’s control. However, what is within our control is how we communicate with you. And yesterday, we failed,” she wrote.

“I want you to know how seriously we are taking this situation.”

The superintendent noted some parents reported being unable to access information about delays and that has been fixed, with timely updates available at @RETSDtransport on Twitter and the division’s website.

While Kovacs is grateful the Sun Valley principal was quick to offer support and apologize, the father said many questions remain unanswered.

The East St. Paul parent emailed Herbst and several elected officials Oct. 4 to request more information to ensure no family ever has the same experience. As of Thursday, he had not received any replies.

In an email Thursday, Amanda Gaudes, senior communications co-ordinator at the division, said the transportation director was in contact with the Kovacs on Sept. 7 and acknowledged the busing system faced several challenges that day.

“Since that time, improvements have been made that address the complexities of transporting over 3,300 students daily,” Gaudes wrote.

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Winnipeg, Manitoba

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