Pillar 3: Strengthening Rural & Northern Schools

Out of Ontario’s 72 school boards, 70 of them have schools in rural areas. There are clear discrepancies between learning in an urban school or a rural one that can come in the form of fewer courses offered, longer bus commutes to school, and less experiential learning opportunities, to name a few. Students across the province deserve to receive a rich educational experience regardless of their geographic location by minimizing barriers and optimizing learning opportunities for rural and northern students.

Student Transportation Standard Studies such as the Research Report regarding Student Transportation and Educational Access[1] have shown that students who have a positive experience in their travel to school find significant benefits to their well-being and success. This is based on the fact that a lengthy or uncomfortable commute to school can impact a student’s ability to start the school day on time and inhibit their ability to participate in extra-curriculars, which are a foundational piece of the student experience. Through OSTA-AECO’s Student Survey, 47% of students reported that transportation affects their abilities to participate in before/after school programming and extra-curriculars, leaving students feeling uninvolved in their community and missing out on experiences which complete the high school experience. Some school boards have already taken steps to set maximum commute times for student transportation and accompanying exemptions.[2] Still, major discrepancies exist across the province. Ontario’s students, regardless of where they live, deserve to be able to get to school in a comfortable and relatively efficient manner. To ensure student transportation is beneficial for students,

Recommendation 3.1: OSTA-AECO recommends that the provincial government expand the school-by-school model of the RNEF to the rest of the Geographic Circumstances Grant and other aspects of the GSNs, ultimately providing all rural & northern schools across Ontario with the support they need.

    Student Transportation

    Transportation is a major component of the educational experience of many Ontario students as approximately 40% of students are transported to and from school via school buses and other board-funded transportation mechanisms each day.[3] It is funded via the Student Transportation Grant within the broader Geographic Circumstances Grant. Student transportation is delivered through the use of a system of transportation consortia. These transportation consortiums are organizations formed by 2 to 5 school boards of different systems operating in the same geographic boundaries in order to consolidate costs and increase efficiency. The 33 consortia across Ontario are each[4] individually responsible for operational requirements like administering local board transportation policies, planning transportation services, and contracting school bus operators.

     Student Transportation Standard

    Studies such as the Research Report regarding Student Transportation and Educational Access[5] have shown that students who have a positive experience in their travel to school find significant benefits to their well-being and success. This is based on the fact that a lengthy or uncomfortable commute to school can impact a student’s ability to start the school day on time and inhibit their ability to participate in extra-curriculars, which are a foundational piece of the student experience.

    Through OSTA-AECO’s Student Survey, 47% of students reported that transportation affects their abilities to participate in before/after school programming and extra-curriculars, leaving students feeling uninvolved in their community and missing out on experiences which complete the high school experience.

    Some school boards have already taken steps to set maximum commute times for student transportation and accompanying exemptions.[6] Still, major discrepancies exist across the province. Ontario’s students, regardless of where they live, deserve to be able to get to school in a comfortable and relatively efficient manner. To ensure student transportation is beneficial for students,

    Recommendation 3.2: OSTA-AECO recommends that the Government of Ontario work with school boards to establish a Student Transportation Standard, outlining guidelines for bus-to-home communication, informed bus route decision-making, regional protocols for school bus cancellations, and maximum commute times which all take into account local, unique geographic realities.

    School Bus Inspections

    In 2015, the Auditor General conducted an audit of student transportation services throughout the province and found some significant discrepancies with regards to safety standards. Notably, the Auditor found that restrictions around the maximum and average age of school buses were done at the individual contract level and thus varied board to board. This is coupled with varying processes by consortiums and the Ministry of Transportation for the inspection of buses, which the Auditor stated were “not targeting those vehicles most at risk for safety violations, performing inspections on a timely basis, or ensuring that defects noted during the inspection were fixed”.[7] These discrepancies leave the door open for varying school bus safety standards across the province, all of which have the potential to endanger students.

    Recommendation 3.3: Thus, OSTA-AECO recommends that the Government engage collaboratively with school boards to establish consistent, province-wide standards for the average & maximum age of school buses and processes for school bus inspections.

    School Bus Safety Standards

    Additionally, the Auditor General found that School bus safety training for riders was not a requirement, and only 16 of the 33 consortia in the province have made it mandatory.[8] Safety training is a critical proactive measure to ensure Ontario’s students are protected and safe while being transported to and from school. School buses are not immune to accidents; between 2010 and 2015, 5 600 buses were involved in an accident, and in 2013 it was found that school buses were in proportionately more accidents than cars and trucks. [9]

    Recommendation 3.4: OSTA-AECO recommends that the Government of Ontario make school bus safety training a mandatory requirement for all consortia’s to implement and that the Government increase the School Bus Rider Safety Amount within the Student Transportation Grant if necessary to allow for this.

    “I live in a small community approximately an hour away from my school, therefore, making it extremely difficult to participate in many activities. With that being said, I still make a full attempt to participate in activities or events and attend all those which are made possible by the help of friends, family and the school itself.” Grade 12 Female, Rainbow DSB

    References   [ + ]

    1, 5. The Ontario Ministry of Education, Discussion paper on a new vision for student transportation in Ontario. (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2017).
    2, 6. Ibid., 23
    3. Urban Institute Student Transportation Working Group, Student Transportation and Educational Access. (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 2017).
    4. Ibid., 45
    7. Office of the Auditor General of Ontario, Annual Report 2015. (Toronto: Offce of the Auditor General of Ontario, 2015), 513.
    8. Office of the Auditor General of Ontario, Annual Report 2015. (Toronto: Office of the Auditor General of Ontario, 2015), 512.
    9.  Ibid., 49