No Room on the Bus

No Room on the Bus

👤Amanda Follett Hosgood 🕔Nov 06, 2017

Amber Wells thinks for a moment about the younger kids she watched board a school bus in Gitsegukla, only to find there was nowhere to sit.

“They looked kind of scared—or shy,” says the 13-year-old Hazelton Secondary student. She wasn’t the only one to notice: a friend sitting ahead of her saw the fear on the faces of the young children and suggested they give up their seats, wait for the next bus. Three others joined them, leaving five vacant seats for the elementary school kids.

“I’d feel bad if they had to wait out there longer. They already have to wait for our bus,” Amber says about the hour-long bus run that begins in Kitwanga and stops in Gitsegukla before continuing on to Hazelton. 

Northern BC’s vast expanses have long presented challenges for travelling in the region: everything from treacherous road conditions to inadequate public transportation to the horrific stories of women who go missing trying to hitch a ride. For some parents in Coast Mountains School District 82, the start of the school year brought about a new worry: that public school buses couldn’t be relied upon to deliver their child to school.

Amber arrives at her bus stop at 7:30 a.m. and gets home at 4:30 p.m.—sometimes later, depending on after-school activities. Several mornings this year, she gave up not just her seat, but the opportunity to arrive at school early, in time to prepare for the day, so that wide-eyed children, some in their earliest years of school, could have a space on the crowded bus that takes them to Majagaleehl Gali Aks Elementary School in Hazelton. Amber and her friends waited 15 minutes in Gitsegukla for the Gitanyow bus, which gets her to school right before the bell rings.

“It happened a few times (this year),” says the Grade 9 student, adding that the crowding issue appeared to have improved by early October. “We had the same problem last year, too. Sometimes they do three to a seat or someone would sit on someone’s lap.”

Mavis Banek knows all too well the challenges of living in a remote region like northern BC: “This is my life,” she says over the phone from a volleyball tournament in Smithers, more than an hour’s drive from her home in Gitsegukla. Earlier in the day, she was shuttling to her grandson’s hockey game.

Banek lives with her three grandchildren; the eldest is in high school while the two youngest, ages 7 and 10, attend Majagaleehl Gali Aks. In the winter, when it’s cold, Banek drives her grandchildren the one-kilometre distance to the school bus. This fall, she’s needed to stay and ensure they can get on the bus.

On several mornings, she says she saw five teens get off to make room for younger kids, indicating the bus was overbooked by at least as many spaces. Between driving to school either her grandchildren or the teens who gave up their seats, she made the one-hour round trip to Hazelton an extra four or five times in September.

“I didn’t want any kids to feel like they had to give up their seat for my kids when I could drive them,” she says, applauding the teens. “Our bigger kids especially have just gotten up and given their seats to the younger kids.”

School board secretary treasurer Alanna Cameron says the recent busing issues were a result of attempting to streamline routes and eliminate inefficiencies: “We’re trying to fill the buses so they’re not running half full,” she says.

With footprints roughly 10 times size of their southern counterparts, northern school districts, such as Peace River North, have fought in recent years for increased busing resources. SD82 currently spends $2.2 million annually on transportation, with a single bus run costing between $65,000 and $100,000, depending on distance and trip duration, Cameron says.

Those funds come, in part, from a $550,000 Student Transportation Fund. The district also draws from its Unique District funding, which recognizes the challenges of being rural and remote, but isn’t specific to transportation.

The Unique District funding was expected to drop this year in conjunction with lower enrolment, Cameron says. Based on last year’s student numbers and the forecasted enrolment decreased, the district attempted to combine two runs into one. Unexpected enrolment put numbers beyond bus capacity and a second run has since been reinstated, she says. She adds that describing the buses as “overcrowded” would be inaccurate.

“We’ve never run a bus that had a greater number of students than what the bus allows,” she says. “In no case were kids unsafe or left on the side of the road.”

While she admits that the system is still being refined, Cameron says the issues appeared to have been resolved by early October. But even if there are enough spaces for the number of students, buses are still exceptionally full, Banek says. It makes for not just an uncomfortable, but a potentially dangerous trip for the youngest students, when bus drivers can’t adequately police their riders. “It was really hard on the kids. My kids didn’t understand. They were saying, ‘Why are the buses so crowded?’” Banek says. “They really dislike it: ‘Oh, Granny, I don’t like getting on the bus—it’s just so crowded.’

“How does a grandparent support their child and those feelings?”