It would seem today's modern fleet of school buses hasn't been built for Northern Ontario weather.
According to the Sudbury Student Services Consortium, there is a problem with vehicles manufactured after 2010 which makes them hard to run in cold weather.
Changes to the engine design to make them more energy-efficient has had the unfortunate side effect of turning diesel fuel into gel in the extreme cold.
That's exactly what happened Jan. 23, when school buses were cancelled because of record cold temperatures, which dipped below -36 C.
Students are also complaining of being cold on these buses because the engines aren't able to run the heaters properly on such days.
“We're seeing more issues with those vehicles in very, very cold weather,” said Renée Boucher, executive director of the Sudbury Student Services Consortium.
“It's a good thing we're friendlier to the environment, but on the other end, it doesn't really help us in the North.”
Those inefficiencies in the buses, combined with inclement weather such as freezing rain, have resulted in seven bus cancellations already since the start of the school year.
The decision whether or not to cancel school buses is ultimately made by the Sudbury Student Services Consortium, which provides school bus service for all four local school boards.
Boucher said she's aware of the criticism directed at the consortium, and knows school bus cancellations can be an inconvenience. But she asks parents to remember the safety of their children comes first.
People may not be aware that even if the roads look fine in their area, they might not be passable in others.
“We're on all the little, little side roads that may not have been plowed.”
Usually, school buses are cancelled because of existing road conditions. But in the case of Jan. 29, Boucher made the call based on a weather report for freezing rain forecast for that afternoon.
“That was the first time I had ever made a decision on a forecast,” she said.
“But if you looked at the satellite and the radar, and saw the amount of freezing rain that was going to fall in the afternoon, we knew we were going to have major issues.”
In Norm Blaseg's 24 years of working in education in the Greater Sudbury area, he's never seen a winter with more school bus cancellations.
We're on all the little, little side roads that may not have been plowed.
executive director, Sudbury Student Services Consortium
“It's problematic for us,” said the director of education with the Rainbow District School Board. “But then again, we can't control the weather.”
Buses were cancelled Dec. 17 and 21, Jan. 23, a three-day stretch from Jan. 29-31, and again this week, on Feb. 11. In comparison, in both 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, school buses were only cancelled three days.
The unusual number of school bus cancellations is having an impact in the classroom, Blaseg said. While schools generally remain open when school buses are cancelled, only about a quarter of students show up on those days.
Teachers are reluctant to teach anything new because they'll just have to repeat the lesson when the rest of their class shows up, Blaseg said.
The school bus cancellations became especially problematic during the three-day stretch in January, which coincided with high school exams.
“They keep postponing those exams from one day to the next, and you can only do that for so long.”
While a week of school has been lost, extending the school year isn't an option, as a 194-day school year is mandated by the province, Blaseg said.
But as much as the school bus cancellations has been a challenge for all local school boards, he said student safety is paramount.
“In one breath you may say 'Let's send the buses out,' and then if it gets nasty like it's supposed to, then we put peoples' lives in some kind of peril.”
The issue of school bus cancellations has been a hot topic of discussion on Northern Life's Facebook page in recent weeks.
Chris Bolestridge, for example, said the road conditions Feb. 11 “did not warrant a cancellation.” Jamie-Less Emes said she remembers riding the school bus as a child in snowy weather, adding that “they are calling cancellations too much.”
On the other side of the equation, Jocelyn Leblanc-Daoust said she'd rather see school buses cancelled than risk her kids' safety.
“But I am also on maternity leave and am able to stay home with my kids. I can see the frustration of parents scrambling for daycare when buses are cancelled.”
School bus driver Ashley Strickland said she doesn't like to hear people characterize bus drivers as scared to drive in inclement weather or that they need better training.
“We're 40 feet long and super-heavy. They aren't snow plows. They don't come equipped with ice picks on the tires,” she said.