‘It really does make me nervous’: For students, back to class means back to public transit amid a rising fourth wave of COVID-19

Keith Baybayon is looking forward to going back to class this fall. But it’s the commute he’s not so keen on.

The 16-year-old is heading into his senior year at Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School in midtown Toronto. After the pandemic limited in-person attendance last year, this fall the plan is for students like him to be in school every day, which will hopefully mean Baybayon’s final year is a more normal one.

But to get to class Baybayon, like thousands of other Toronto students, will have to rely on the TTC. He will need to take two bus routes to get to school — the 52 Lawrence West and 61 Avenue Road — and the thought of being on crowded transit vehicles for more than an hour each day makes him more nervous than the prospect of sitting in a class full of students.

“Just because we’re going to school every single day now for this upcoming school year, I just know that (transit) is going to be much more crowded than usual,” said Baybayon, who is a student trustee with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB). “My main concern is obviously the people that don’t respect physical distancing and just decide to sit wherever they want to. And also the people who don’t wear masks.”

“It really does make me nervous,” he said.

With classes set to resume next month amid a rising fourth wave of the pandemic, parents and students have no shortage of things to worry about this school year. But while public debates about air filtration, cohorting and vaccine mandates have largely centred on how to keep students healthy once they get to class, added to the mix is anxiety about kids being crammed onto public transit on their way to school. It’s a big enough worry that it’s affecting some families’ choices this fall.

Nicole Desaulnier’s 15-year-old son Julian is going into Grade 10 at Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, and after all the disruptions last year she was hoping he’d get to finally spend time with his classmates face-to-face. But she made the difficult decision to keep him in virtual learning this coming semester, in part because it doesn’t feel safe to have him ride the TTC.

“In Grade 9 he didn’t have the opportunity to make a lot of new friends, so the social aspect he is definitely missing out on,” Desaulnier said. “Going back to school this year was really important for me.”

To get to Rosedale Heights from their home in Cabbagetown Julian would have to take a bus and then transfer to the subway. Even though Julian’s fully vaccinated, Desaulnier said that with the more contagious Delta variant circulating she doesn’t want to risk it.

“I don’t want him on a crowded platform, (or a) crowded car,” she said.

About 14 per cent of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) students have opted out of in-school learning this semester, according to the board, but will be attending class in person.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said the transit agency is preparing for an influx of students taking transit in September and has been consulting with post-secondary institutions and school boards about its plans.

As it did last fall, the agency intends to reintroduce about 180 school “trippers,” which are special bus trips timed to first and last bells at high schools that have high ridership. The trippers will mostly serve schools in the inner suburbs of Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York.

The TTC will also continue measures it undertook earlier in the pandemic, including , providing real-time vehicle crowding information through transit apps, upgrading air filtration systems and instituting a demand-responsive service plan. It has also made masks mandatory for riders and employees. But while the agency says compliance is high, the rule is not strictly enforced.

There’s no consensus on how readily COVID-19 spreads on public transit. Public Health Ontario has advised that evidence is “mixed” and the degree to which riders are at risk “is still largely unknown.” Toronto Public Health doesn’t advise against taking transit, but recommends riders avoid travelling at busy times, keep a distance from other passengers, and always wear a mask.

Green said that while no cases have been conclusively linked to transit, the agency doesn’t “take that for granted.”

“We absolutely understand the concerns our customers may have, especially those who have not ridden the TTC in the past 18 months,” Green said. “That’s why we’ve undertaken extraordinary measures to ensure the TTC remains safe for our customers and employees.”

The TTC expects back-to-school transit use and higher rates of workplace commuting to help drive ridership to between 46 to 56 per cent of pre-COVID ridership this fall. As of mid-August it was at about 37 per cent, or roughly 644,000 trips per day.

School boards are also keeping an eye on transit safety. In a statement, the TCDSB said it “maintains regular communication” with the TTC to advise the transit agency of school program hours when students are travelling, and helps them identify any localized problems as they arise.

The board said that once classes resume staff will be reviewing COVID-19 safety tips with students and reminding them “to remain vigilant whenever they are out in the community — and especially when using public transit — by practising proper social distancing, hand hygiene and use of face coverings/masks.”

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said when the board receives reports of crowding on transit it alerts the TTC, and the agency has “been quite receptive to feedback.”

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation for the Star. Reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr