By Cole Parkinson
After several cold weeks in a row in early 2021, the Horizon school board of trustees have moved forward on a discussion around bussing practices when it reaches extreme temperatures.
While warmer weather is on the horizon, the board was able to look back at the several weeks of cold weather that hit southern Alberta during this winter and assess how they want to address the issue going into the next school year. At the board’s regular meeting Feb. 22, trustees were informed of how the division office had tackled the issue so far and they heard feedback from parents that had been received.
“I was surprised we didn’t get more comments from individuals upset one way or the other,” stated Wilco Tymensen, superintendent of schools. “Typically, when we get snow and winter storms, some people are unhappy when buses continue to run and then when we cancel them, some people are unhappy they are cancelled. Ultimately, our comment is we try to make our decision based on safety. If buses are operating and parents don’t feel it is safe for a variety of reasons, they are the parent and they have the ability to make that decision to say ‘it’s too long of a bus ride for my little one. We’ll drive them ourselves or we’ll keep them at home.’”
With winters varying in terms of snow and cold temperatures, the division and the board had not previously instituted a policy around when buses would run.
Instead, they would assess each situation on a case by case basis and would ultimately decide when the weather presented a potential safety concern.
It was also pointed out parents could take several different approaches during the snowy season, including keeping their kids home or driving themselves.
“Some families do feel the pressure to make sure their kid is at school because they are missing out. Sometimes they feel they have undue pressure to put themselves on the road to allow that to continue,” said Tymensen. “We did have buses cancelled for a number of days during the minus 40 weather.”
After speaking with a handful of parents, Tymensen informed the board responses have been largely positive regarding how they have handled cold weather procedures in the past.
“The feedback from parents that were there, for the most part, was they didn’t see a need for a policy. From their perspective, they felt we were making those decisions already and we were making the right decisions. They were comfortable with the decisions we made and they can always make the decision to keep them at home,” continued Tymensen. “If we don’t have a practice or policy specifically about it, a lot of time, effort, and dialogue that goes on around is it cold enough? Is it not cold enough? Should we be closed? Should we be open? There is an awful lot of dialogue between division office, First Student and bus drivers.”
Another major factor that has gone into addressing whether or not buses run in cold temperatures is how poorly they retain heat.
“I don’t know if any of you have been on a bus in that cold of weather. Unlike a car or a house, they don’t have good insulation. It’s a single pane window,” added Tymensen.
In a survey sent out by the School Transportation Association of Alberta, 32 of 39 divisions who responded said they had a cold-weather bus practice. Four out of five rural southern Alberta school divisions had a practice of some sort.
“At a certain temperature, they say buses aren’t running. Some of them have it based on wind chill and some say no wind chill,” explained Tymensen. “The vast majority are picking around minus 40 with wind chill.”
The board was in favour of not having buses run when it got to minus 40 with wind chill.
“In southern Alberta, you have to acknowledge wind chill because it is a reality. I personally feel when it gets down to minus 40 with wind chill, I don’t think buses should be going,” said Bruce Francis, vice-chair.
Tymensen also pointed out buses running within the division can be located in vastly different locations throughout the municipality and in the case of a breakdown, some may be stranded for long periods.
“It’s a different story between an in-town bus and an out of town bus because if a bus breaks down on a gravel road out in the middle of nowhere — to get another bus out there will take time. It could be an hour or half an hour,” he said.
A motion was carried by the board to add a section within Policy EBCD — Emergency School Closure around buses not running when temperatures reach minus 40.
Under section 4 “Extreme Cold Weather” of the policy, it states buses “will not run when temperatures in a bus cluster geographic region are -40 C (with windchill) or colder as of 6 a.m. that morning. Schools may remain open depending on circumstances.”