Covid-19 puts the brakes on driving schools

Gus Rahim

TORONTO, Ont. – Truck driving schools have shut down across Ontario following the Covid-19 outbreak, leaving students in limbo and owners in financial distress.

Although the schools are not required to close during the fight against the pandemic, owners say it is not possible to operate under present circumstances, with social distancing being the norm.

And, the closures have hit some particularly hard.

“There are some students who quit their jobs in order to pursue a trucking career.”

– Raj Walia, president of Trukademy.

“There are some students who quit their jobs in order to pursue a trucking career,” said Raj Walia, president of Trukademy, a training school based in Mississauga, Ont.

“I really feel for the students…They were learning it, and suddenly the schools are shut down.”

He said Trukademy had 15 students at the time of the closure.

Online learning

OTDS instructor Carole Dore teaching online.

Ontario Truck Driving School (OTDS), one of the largest chains with nine learning centers in the province, said it was forced to lay off some 70 instructors because of the closure.

OTDS has since switched to distance learning for the theory part of the A/Z course, with just a couple of instructors.

“It is like a webinar, but designed for a classroom.”

– Gus Rahim, president of OTDS.

“Basically, we run a live classroom with an instructor, and it is working out very well because everyone is at their home in front of their computers,” said Gus Rahim, president of OTDS. “It is like a webinar, but designed for a classroom.”

Each session is open to a limited number of students, who still have to complete the practical part of the course when schools reopen, Rahim said.

Pre-Covid-19, OTDS schools had about 400 students, roughly half of them pursuing the A/Z licence, he said. Many more were waitlisted. Rahim is hopeful that the situation would return to normal soon.

“Well, when we go back, we need to reshuffle things. And, the ones who are ready to test will get the priority. Then the second group, then the third group (and so on).”

For now, Rahim said his main goal is to keep the business running until things get better.

It is not an easy task as income has gone down to zero and fixed costs such as lease installments, insurance premiums and rent still have to be paid, he said.

“The premiums alone come to $21,000 a month,” he said.

Rahim is in talks with his insurers on reducing the payments as all of his 70 trucks are sitting on parking lots. OTDS is headquartered in London, Ont.

Looming debt

Ontario Truck Training Academy (OTTA), another major school with five branches, has just launched its first virtual class in co-ordination with the Ministry of Transportation, said president Yvette Lagrois.

The Oshawa, Ont.-based OTTA has 20 staff, including 15 instructors. Most of them have been laid off.

Lagrois said the driving schools are no different from any other organization, and that they will go into heavy debt if things don’t improve quickly.

“We operate in highly expensive labor and time. And as the time goes by, we can’t make that money back, we can’t make up time.”

– Yvette Lagrois, president of OTTA.

“We operate in highly expensive labor and time. And as the time goes by, we can’t make that money back, we can’t make up time,” she said, echoing warnings from public health officials that the crisis could last months.

“We only have 365 days. That’s it. There is no more. So, if we start losing a quarter, then we are going lose, you know, 25% of our income.”

Like a family

Ken Adams
Ken Adams, director of operations at Crossroads Truck Training Academy.

Ken Adams, director of operations at Ottawa, Ont.-based Crossroads Truck Training Academy, said the company decided to close its two locations as a safety precaution.

“You know, we made the moral decision that we weren’t going to jeopardize either our trainers or our students to take this, or catch this and then take it home to their families,” Adams said.

He said it was a difficult decision for all the schools to shut their doors.

“Being a small business, our employees are our family,” Adams said. “And, you know, it’s difficult as business owners to see our family go through hard times.”

Adams said Crossroads had to lay off all of its 15 instructors.

He also said that the company decided against offering an online course because doing so would create a backlog of candidates waiting for practical training and road tests.

“Quite frankly, it is not fair to the students. That’s our opinion.”

DriveTest centers, which have been providing driver examination services in Ontario, were closed late last month in a bid to stop the spread of the pandemic.

That means when the schools reopen, students will face a long waiting list for road tests.

Safety measures

Jay Pootha, founder of Jay’s Professional Truck Training Centre in Scarborough, Ont., said some 60 students and 10 staff have been affected by the closure of his school.

Pootha said talks are underway with the Ministry of Transportation and the operator of DriveTest centers on safety measures that could allow the resumption of road tests.

He said they were discussing installation of in-cab safety barriers such as plexiglass between the student and examiner/instructor.

“The closure is having a heavy financial impact on us. I hope this thing will be over soon,” Pootha said.

Community help

A KnowledgeSurge training truck.

One school taking the closure as an opportunity to help the community is KnowledgeSurge Institute of Barrie, Ont.

We have our staff in the community helping deliver grocery to seniors.” –

Samantha Clarke, commercial driver solutions manager at KnowledgeSurge.

“It has definitely put a damper on things, but we have our staff in the community helping deliver grocery to seniors,” said Samantha Clarke, commercial driver solutions manager at KnowledgeSurge.

“We are still being very safe. We just pick up their orders from like a Walmart or a dairy, and then deliver them. So, just trying to help them stay positive throughout all this.”

Clarke said the company hasn’t laid off any of its staff. Instead, they are upgrading their skills via virtual internal training. As for the students, there is an option for online class, but not everyone is interested in that, she said.

KnowledgeSurge had already been offering some online modules as part of its training programs, she said.

No students, no instructors

Commercial Heavy Equipment Training (CHET) of Mississauga has also been adversely affected by the closure.

“This has put us into a large hole with lack of students and even lack of instructors,” said operations manager Philip Fletcher.

“We’re down to skeleton crew here, looking after Musket’s training department,” he added, referring to the parent company, Musket Transport.

CHET, which had 40 students before the closure, has six now taking virtual classes, Fletcher said.

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  • As a former commercial driver examiner with over 15 years of experience and over 15 years of prior experience driving tractor trailers, I can see a possibility of starting the road tests but safety of examiners and applicants must be paramount.
    Any barriers between them will prevent examiners from any intervention they may need to do in orders to avoid an accident.
    Instead of that a good quality face masks must be provided to both examiners and applicants and glowes for examiners as well. Before any road tests aerosol disinfectant should be also used in the closed sitting compartment to be able to clean it thoroughly.
    I hope that at least these measures will be implemented before testing starts.

  • I’m a shipping supervisor for a lumber company and I’m looking to hire 3 drivers yesterday. How ever we have a strict guidelines for my drivers as it is.. I’m trying to find the best answer to safety of the driver and trainer nobody will commit to a guide line for the distancing in cab. My heart tells me to wait till covid relaxes.

  • My son has been waiting since this all started to take driving test. Did everything else. He is in Sault ste marie Ontario. Are you opening soon??