With intense blizzards blasting Eastern Ontario last week and Alberta this week, Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario (STEO) announced it has made improvements in managing — and communicating — school bus cancellations for the upcoming winter season.
“STEO has worked vigorously to improve communication with parents and students about decisions to cancel busing if snowy conditions or icy roads make it unsafe to run buses,” said Ron Cotnam, STEO's general manager and chief administrative officer.
The school bus contractor’s website offers parents easy access to transportation updates during the inclement weather season so they don’t have to wait for the next newscast to get details. “The decision to cancel busing is not taken lightly,” Cotnam explained. “It's based on careful analysis of several factors, from up-to-date weather forecasts, to information from bus drivers who check roads on mornings when problem weather is expected.”
STEO staff members review forecasts each day before 2 p.m. to check for weather alerts that may affect busing. If there are problems on the horizon, bus contractors are notified. Forecasts are reviewed again at 9:30 p.m. On mornings when snowstorms, freezing rain or other weather problems are expected, Pelmorex/The Weather Network is contacted at 4:30 a.m. to check on weather conditions. Road crews from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation utilize the same weather forecasting service, which is considered the best in Canada.
Yet STEO staff members do not rely solely on forecasts when deciding whether or not to cancel bus service.
Consultation takes place with a team of contractors whose staff members check area roads at 4:30 a.m. if bad weather is expected. The region is separated into 18 zones with a contractor as a captain in each zone. The captain reports weather and road conditions to Cotnam directly, confirming the amount of snow and ice accumulation on roads and whether snow or freezing rain is continuing, while also providing details on accumulation and intensity. STEO and the contractors also consult with municipal road crews, police and other school boards throughout the region before making the call.
With such a large area, it's not unusual for weather to be terrible in some areas of the jurisdiction and not others. In those situations, the board only cancels busing in problem areas, or areas where weather is expected to pose difficulty for bus drivers by the time they pick up students for the return trip home. This means buses can be cancelled in all 18 zones, or cancelled in as few as one, when conditions warrant such an order. Parents may get frustrated if roads in their area look fine, but the reality is that one street may look clear when others in the immediate region may be too dangerous to travel.
Based on Cotnam's recommendations, the director of education from each board, or a designate, then makes the final decision on bus cancellations. This decision must be made by 5:45 a.m., as buses begin their routes as early as 6 a.m.
"We understand that cancelling buses in bad weather has a big effect on families, and we know that students are best served in the classroom," Cotnam said.
Once the decision is made to run, STEO cannot reverse it, even if weather takes an unexpected turn for the worse. Parents rely on that decision when they leave for work.
In October, STEO launched a new service on its website where parents can access important bussing information. Those who register with the new Parent Portal can now receive important transportation updates and notifications for their children directly via e-mail. The new, user-friendly portal is offered free of charge at www.steo.ca to both parents and students.
“The new website feature will allow parents and students to quickly and conveniently access important information — such as late-running buses,” added Cotnam.