The ORCA Bus is back on the road this month, with new pandemic safeguards in place.

Chelsea Ballantyne, ORCA Bus Coordinator with the Powell River & District United Way, said the bus is delivering the same preschool activities to families across the region, with some COVID-era adjustments.

“Like many local services, the ORCA Bus paused its activities in March out of an abundance of caution,” Ballantyne said. 

“In the six months since, we’ve been connecting with families on our social media channels while we work with our partners to plan a safe reopening.”

That reopening has now happened. 

The bus relaunched the first week of October with StrongStart programming, offered by School District 47’s Early Years team, and is now expanded to include Family Place and other providers. 

Stops are currently scheduled weekdays in local Powell River parks, with hopes to eventually return to rural areas across the region.

Activities are free for families with children ages newborn to six years old, as long as they pre-register.

Volunteer drivers needed

Kids and families have been “excited to reunite with the familiar ORCA Bus venue after so much COVID-related upheaval in their lives,” said Rita John, early learning coordinator for School District 47.

“When kids are working through something scary like COVID-19, they need that continuity and connection,” John added. “The bus is that normal, fun place. Play hasn’t changed.”

Still, families who visit the ORCA Bus will notice a few health- and safety-related changes. 

Most notably, families are required to pre-register for all activities, and for now, they won’t be invited on board.

“We’re focusing on outdoor education and programming partly because of COVID-19,” John said. 

“Outdoors is considered safe by Dr. Henry and we thought this was a great opportunity to develop our programming with families outdoors, making it safe and a fun thing to do.”

Additional pandemic-era modifications include increased cleaning, a new awning to create a sheltered play area outside, and a staff driver to cover shifts for volunteers, many of whom, as seniors, are at higher risk for illness.

Temporary funding for the new safety measures was provided through March 2021 by the Community Response Fund, a partnership between Powell River & District United Way, Powell River Community Foundation, and First Credit Union. 

The fund is helping local charities adapt their services for vulnerable populations during COVID-19.

Still, United Way says more driver time is needed for the bus to return to full service, especially for time-intensive trips to locations like Texada Island and Lund.

No special license is required to drive the bus, and all training is provided. 

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer driver, or making a donation to support extra staffing costs beyond March, can contact [email protected]

Families invited to pre-register online

Staffed by a community outreach worker, the bus offers more than just preschool programming. 

Organizers say the bus builds community among parents and connects them with local resources.

“The ORCA Bus is a unique way to connect with families,” said Anabelle Tully-Barr, facilitator for Family Place, another program that partners with the ORCA Bus. ]

“We sometimes get to see families that we have never encountered in any other family venue.”

Families with children ages 0-6 can find the ORCA Bus schedule and pre-register online here

Adults are asked to wear masks and to dress their kids for any weather, rain or shine. 

More information on safety protocols is available on the ORCA Bus website.

Despite these extra precautions, organizers say the ORCA Bus is committed to being a friendly space for children to escape and just be kids, even in a global pandemic.

“The ORCA Bus transports you to the children’s world,” said Maria De Mira, another Family Place facilitator who leads programs with the bus.

“With all the stress of a global pandemic, it’s just what many of us need.”