One-off contracts with the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District to handle COVID-19 busing restrictions are coming back to haunt some of the companies that carried out the work, as operators say that without clear direction for next year they're facing a financial crunch.
As the school year loomed in September, so did the challenge of how to transport students safely. The solution, funded by $12 million in federal pandemic relief, was to slash the number of riders from 72 to 46 students per bus, a move that required about 100 extra buses to be sourced at the last minute.
Much of that scramble fell to private operators who bid on one-year busing contracts, like Newfound Transit and Bursey's Bus Service. The Conception Bay South company spent nearly $2 million to bring in 15 buses, 2021 and 2022 models, some fresh from a factory floor in Georgia.
"We dragged them from the U.S., Ontario and Quebec to get them here in order to be ready for the first day of school last September," said Evan Bursey, the company's co-owner.
Now Bursey is selling every last one.
His contract is just about up, and although it came with a one-year option to renew, he said the school district and Department of Education have been silent for months on whether it would come through. He still doesn't know, but with late June a prime time to sell buses, he's cashing out and willing to ship his barely used fleet back to mainland Canada and U.S. if there are buyers.
"It's tough. You know, I don't blame it on anybody, we know it's hard for the NLESD and the government to make any decisions in this climate, " he said.
"I do understand that. But it doesn't change the fact that it is very tough for a business owner in our position, to be able to continue in business."
In Corner Brook, a busing company that is waiting on word for its two COVID-19 contracts is facing similar hard choices about what to do with its extra inventory and extra drivers.
"Do we have to lay these staff members off now, not bring them back in September?" said Adam Buckle, the director of Buckle's Busing. "We're going to make decisions for the business. And there's nothing, nothing from the government at this juncture."
Next September unknowns
Some things are certain: as of September, students age 12 and up can go back to riding school buses just as they did pre-pandemic, Education Minister Tom Osborne told CBC News.
Twelve is the minimum age eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
"In terms of children under the age of 12, at this stage we don't have any insight as to what the public health guidelines will be," said Osborne.
According to the NLESD, there are about 19,500 students younger than 12 in the province.
"At this stage, we have no indication as to whether or not they will be able to be vaccinated. So we have to allow for the fact that they're not," said Osborne.
Bursey and other bus contractors said no allowance has yet been made. He hopes to be rid of his buses as soon as possible, but if the district comes knocking with a contract extension, "at that time, whatever we have left that's not sold, we'll put to work."
In an emailed statement, the NLESD said it's moving ahead with its normal capacity bus contracts.
Buckle said there still some of the $12-million bus fund left, and those funds should be used in case another wave of the pandemic forces a busing change.
"Maybe we need to take a year, and say, 'Let's take the safe bet. :et's renew the COVID contracts and make sure our kids are transported safely,'" Buckle said.
But the district said it's on track to use the entire budget provided for COVID-19 relief.
Bursey might have trouble finding a buyer anyway. The COVID-19 contracts have had another unexpected consequence for private bus operators in Newfoundland and Labrador — there are now ample buses on the market, said Bursey, and not the demand to match.
Adding to the issues, Bursey said he was unsuccessful in bidding on any regular bus routes because had to bid higher prices to accommodate his newer, more expensive fleet. Some in the industry speculate operators are undercutting themselves just to keep buses on the roads next year.
"It's a law of economics," said Buckle. "So we have some bus operators … they're starting to realize this is not a viable industry."
Bursey is one of those; he's liquidating the rest of his fleet beyond his COVID-19 buses and focusing instead on taxis and private services.
While the COVID-19 contracts always carried a risk — and the companies that took them on knew there was pandemic uncertainty — in light of the industry instability, Buckle said he and and other operators across the province are looking for a long-term solution.
"Maybe three weeks ago, a bunch of operators jumped on the Zoom call and they said, 'Enough's enough,'" he said.
They're forming an industry association in the hopes of getting a better ear and changing the system.
Buckle said Osborne needs to hear from the province's operators.
"Let us come up with some ideas how you can save money for the province but create a viable industry for Newfoundland and Labrador, and create a safer industry for students."