NORTH BAY -- The traditional school bus ride is going to be a lot different for students in North Bay this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials say.

"It's not going to be the same this year as it was in past years, and maybe it'll never go back to that," said Chuck Seguin, executive director of the Nipissing Parry Sound Student Transportation Services.

The Nipissing Parry Sound Student Transportation Services released its plan for the 2020 school year with heightened safety protocols in place to help make sure that everyone is safe.

"All students will be masked," said Sequin. "We have required the establishment of seating plans to facilitate contact tracing if it's required … Also to keep students either as siblings together in one seat or as class cohorts in seats."

Bus drivers are also required to wear PPE equipment, however, concerns are still present.

Some apprehensions

"There are some apprehensions," he said. "A lot of our drivers are older citizens and they may have vulnerable partners at home. So there's a lot to think about.

"(But) looking at the totality of our environment, the risk doesn't appear to be as high as in other areas of the province, and that goes back to what we've been doing since mid March as a community."

With the safety plan now released, parents have to decide whether to send their child on the bus this year, or find another method of transportation.

Karen Matthews has a son going into Grade 7 and while she has some worries, for now she has decided to opt into the service.

"I would have preferred more spacing on the buses," Matthews said. "They're allowed to social distance at the bus stop and waiting to come home, but there's no social distancing on the bus, which is confusing when you're a child and confusing as a parent.

Doing the best they can

"I think everybody is doing the best they can, but is it good enough? I don't know."

Responsibility to help kids follow the rules will fall on the bus drivers, parents and the schools.

"(Drivers have) added responsibility in trying to keep masks on kids - they will deal with that," said Seguin. "They will report to parents, report to principals and it's those people in the school and parents can work with the child to have them succeed, because that's our ultimate goal in school transportation and in education, that every child be given the opportunity and the tools to succeed."

However, parents and even kids, are a bit concerned that kids won't listen.

"He said in past years that kids haven't followed directions from the bus driver and, in his words, these are heightened circumstances," said Matthews, about her son's past experience. "He doesn't know how it's going to work with the bus driver and possibly not a monitor because we don't know whether there will be a monitor on every bus in the district, either. So he is rigid and a rule follower to the extreme and it could be very trying for him and others like him if other kids aren't following mask protocol and hygiene as we are supposed to."

Check early, just in case

Routes and pick up/drop off times are now available online. However, Matthew's is encouraging parents to check early just in case of any mix ups.

"My answer on the survey that I filled out a number of weeks ago was that he would be taking the bus, and when I checked to see where his pick up and drop off was, it says that I was opting out of bus travel ... which is not accurate at all," she said.

"So I've contacted the consortium and I hope I'll get some answers for that, but I encourage all other parents to check to see where their kids pick up and drop off is in case they run into the same problem."

Seguin said many parents are opting out of school transportation at least in the short term, but are able to opt back in at any time.

"We're working with the operations, we're working with the school boards to ensure that we not only meet their needs on Sept. 8, or now with staggered starts whenever the students start, but also throughout the year," he said.

The current plan is designed to be adaptable so that officials can make adjustment as needed throughout the year.