STEO opens up about latest Snow Days and bus cancellation process

This bus wound up in a ditch near Russell, in March 2017. Courtesy photo

Kelsey Smith
Nation Valley News

EASTERN ONTARIO — Nation Valley News reached out to the Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario (STEO) this morning in regards to the three consecutive snow days these past few days.

Although three consecutive days are not unheard of but they are rare.

“Three consecutive days is the longest in my recollection from the last handful of years, as we’ve typically had at least a day of reprieve in between, but all in the name of safety,” said Janet Murray, General Manager and CAO of STEO.

“It’s been a challenging mix of extreme cold/windchill values, blowing snow, high winds and freezing rain over this past week, which has created difficulty in the world of student transportation. Student safety is at the forefront of our decision-making and we are very appreciative of the support and understanding of the families we serve,” she continued.

STEO also provided Nation Valley News with the following insight as to how they make their decisions and the process taken to do so.

During the winter season, there are occasions when the weather or road conditions will disrupt school bus and special vehicle transportation. STEO, the school boards and local bus companies work together to ensure that our approach to transportation during times of inclement weather is planned, coordinated and communicated with the safety of students in mind.

The Process

During the months of November through March each year, STEO receives up-to-date information regarding regional weather and road conditions from MeteoGroup – a global weather advisor and one of the world’s leading providers of full-service weather solutions. STEO receives several daily notifications from the MeteoGroup and is in direct contact with their Meteorologists when inclement weather is forecast.

Inclement weather forecasts and radar updates are reviewed by the STEO weather team at 9:00 p.m. the night before and again at 4:00 a.m. on the day in question, at which time STEO is advised of all current or impending inclement weather conditions forecast for our vast area of service.

When inclement weather is forecast for the morning hours, weather captains from STEO’s contracted bus companies, with support from their staff members and local road crews, physically check on road conditions as early as 4:00 a.m. The 18 weather captains from across the region report their observations and recommendations to the STEO weather team, who in turn consult with the school boards to come to a decision regarding transportation for the day. This decision must be made no later than 5:45 a.m. to ensure timely communication of messaging to families.

Communication

Announcements regarding the cancellation of school bus and special vehicle transportation are broadcast by local media outlets, starting at 6:15 a.m. at the latest. Alternatively, parents/guardians and students can verify if buses are cancelled via a variety of STEO resources, including our website, our free Bus Planner APP, our Parent Portal, our Facebook and Twitter feeds and our inclement weather hotline.

Challenges

On days of inclement weather and/or questionable road conditions, the school boards we serve, in collaboration with STEO, are tasked with making a challenging decision around running or cancelling buses, with the safety of the entire student body in mind. When you consider the significant number of students (approximately 32,000) and the vast geographic region (12,000 square kilometres) in question, you can be sure that there will be days when some of our families may disagree with the final decision made. On those days, parental discretion and a family’s transportation contingency plan are of utmost importance.

Another challenge that STEO and the boards encounter from time to time, occurs when inclement weather, such as freezing rain, is forecast to move into the region during the late morning or afternoon hours and a decision must be made with the safety of the afternoon commute in mind. The forecasted timing of these weather events is not always precise; however, the decision still must be made by 5:45 a.m. at the latest. There are inevitably situations when transportation is cancelled, only to find that the weather system is delayed or diverted. More often though, the system has moved through the area as forecast, or earlier, which can affect the safe delivery of students home in the afternoon. Our focus at STEO is the safety of all the students we transport, and we do not make these decisions in haste.

STEO and the boards often receive inquiries about our practice to cancel transportation on a board- wide basis, rather than by zone/geographic area. To do so, would be extremely challenging to implement and communicate and is not without significant risk. Weather patterns rarely align neatly with zones and are inclined to change whilst the fleet is in transit. Because of the large geographic region we service and the logistics of rural and cross-boundary transport, it is not uncommon for a school bus to cross multiple zones during a run, from its rural origins to its final destination. If families observe buses on the road but do not receive word that their ‘zone’ has been cancelled, there is a risk that students will be waiting in inclement weather conditions for buses that will not be arriving. On days when transportation is running, bus companies retain the discretion to cancel by run, should road or weather conditions be unmanageable in a specific area of service. Under those circumstances, the bus company posts the cancelation to STEO’s website and communicate to impacted families and schools.

Safety Focus

STEO and the boards understand and believe in the importance of school transportation as it contributes to education and will do everything we can to operate within the due bounds of safety, but we will not knowingly take risks with children, or with our bus drivers and monitors. Fortunately, even on inclement weather days, schools remain open to receive students and provide programming. Conversely, if buses are operating but a parent feels that weather or road conditions are not conducive to travel, they may ultimately decide to keep their children at home.

The process by which inclement weather decisions are made is undertaken with great care and from an informed position, recognizing that sometimes STEO and the boards are working with information and forecasts which may shift or change.

Our mission during inclement weather season and throughout the year, is to provide efficient and reliable transportation to all our families, without compromising the safety of our student passengers.

 

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