Concerns have been raised about the provision of sufficient buses to cater for post primary students returning to school in the coming weeks.
While the primary school bus transport scheme will run at normal capacity, albeit with additional measures and hygiene requirements in place, the decision to run buses at 50% capacity in the post primary has led to fears that there will not be enough buses and drivers to cater for students in the coming year.
The Department of Education and Skills, under Minister, Norma Foley TD, issued advice to parents and guardians of children outlining the operation of the Post Primary School Transport Scheme for 2020/2021.
In the letter it was noted that following the most recent National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) advice on August 18, the decision has been made to incorporate additional measures to support physical distancing on post primary buses.
Students aged 13 and over will be expected to wear masks during transport to and from school, along with other measures, but it is the additional physical distancing guidelines which are causing the most concern.
Buses on the post-primary service will run at 50% capacity to ensure physical distancing recommendations are met.
Bus Éireann operates the School Transport Scheme on behalf of the Department of Education and in a statement to the Leitrim Observer a spokesperson confirmed that there will “be will be a rolling implementation of measures to provide physical distancing on the post-primary services as we work to meet the 50% capacity limit, ranging from scheduling changes to additional resources in terms of vehicles and drivers.
“Students with valid tickets for 2020/21 will be accommodated during this period,” noted the statement, adding that parents and guardians will be kept informed of the developments as they occur.
The advice from the Department also noted parents of children who are eligible for transport under the terms of the School Transport Scheme can also opt not to use post-primary transport services for the 2020/2021 school year. In that case the Department of Education has asked that parents inform them by September 4 so a refund of their child's ticket can be arranged.
Parents of children who are eligible for transport under the terms of the School Transport Scheme, but who decide not to use the scheme for the coming school year, will also be provided with a grant towards the cost of transport arrangements .
This grant will be paid at the end of the school year following receipt of documentation confirming the number of days that the qualifying children have attended during the 2020-2021 school year.
Independent TD, Michael Fitzmaurice has raised concerns that the Department of Education is “rolling out a cunning plan to finish off school transport” during the pandemic.
“First of all, they are talking about a requirement for an extra 1,600 buses (nationally). Having spoken to people in the industry, it is very questionable whether they are even there at the moment,” said Deputy Fitzmaurice.
“As well as that, many bus companies are struggling to find drivers to man the buses that they have - due to long lay-offs caused by Covid-19 forcing their previous drivers to find alternative work.
He was also critical of plans to provide funding to parents of children who qualified for a bus seat if they “decided to drop their children to school, rather than opting for the bus service”.
He said this could lead to a situation where the numbers availing of buses fall below the minimum threshold of 10 asking: “Will the bus then be cancelled? This raises huge concerns, as it could then prove very difficult to reinstate the service,” he said.
“Meanwhile, what happens in an area where parents came together without any financial assistance to organise a private bus company to collect their children?” he asked, adding will these parents be able to avail of grants offered to parents of those on public services.
“The bottom line is, if we don't have enough additional buses or drivers to facilitate the plan revealed by Minister Foley, how are kids going to get to school?” said Deputy Fitzmaurice.
He said Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan, needs to get involved adding that a “significant number” of questions remain unanswered and must be addressed before schools resume.