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TDs seek clarity on social distancing rules for school buses as minister says there's been 'significant progress' on reopening plans

Social distancing is a rule while waiting for school buses but not on them.

A rural school bus in Co Mayo.
A rural school bus in Co Mayo.
Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Updated Aug 14th 2020, 7:23 PM

A NUMBER OF opposition politicians have voiced concerns over the plans for school transport when children return to school at the end of this month.

As part of the government’s plan to re-open schools, the Department of Education has said that the School Transport Scheme will “fully operate as normal” but that a number of hygiene requirements will be in place.

Among those requirements are that children using the bus always sit in pre-assigned seating and next to a sibling or child from their class group.

Children are to also use hand sanitiser when boarding the bus and are told not to use school transport if they are displaying symptoms of Covid-19.

The rules also dictate that students must maintain physical distancing while waiting for transport but a number of politicians have criticised the fact that physical distancing is not an explicit requirement on the buses themselves.

Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD has said the department needs to clarify a number of issues, including whether physical distancing is required on school buses.

“Is this now official Department of Education policy that school buses are exempt from social distancing requirements?,” the Dublin Bay North TD said this afternoon.

What attempts were made by the department to engage with Bus Éireann, the Department of Transport and the NTA to deal with the logistical considerations by obtaining additional buses to deal with capacity constraints imposed by social distancing?

“She also needs to outline how children with underlying conditions who avail of school transport will be accommodated because the letter sent from her Department effectively endorses putting them on packed school buses.”

Ó Ríordáin has called on Minister for Education Norma Foley to appear before the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee to answer questions on the matter.

Sinn Féin TD Darren O’Rourke has also said that social distancing needs to be made a priority for school buses and that more buses need to be put on to allow this to happen.

“It will come as a surprise to many, that although capacity on public transport has been limited to 50% due to Covid-19, no social distancing is planned for school buses when they return at the end of this month,” O’Rourke said.

While it may not be possible to achieve 50% capacity on these services, we believe additional buses should be put on to allow for more social distancing for school children.

“It’s envisaged that children will sit in designated seats, but as many school buses serve numerous schools, an outbreak in one school could spread through the school bus system under the current plans.”

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O’Rourke added that there are “thousands of buses and coaches sitting idle” due to the lack of tourist numbers this year and that they should be used as part of the School Transport Scheme.

In its document outlining back-to-school protocols, the Department of Education argues that school transport services are different to public transport in that they are “controlled environments” and carry “the same children on a daily basis”.

The department also says that contact tracing is easier in school transport services because it is “a restricted group of transport users”.

Roadmap

In an update this evening on the plans for schools reopening, the minister said that “significant progress” has been made since plans were announced two-and-a-half weeks ago. 

Foley said that the department is “fully focused” on providing a safe environment for children and that, to date, almost €160 million has issued to schools to cover minor works such as cleaning and PPE. 

“I would like to pay tribute to the work that is being undertaken at a local school level to ensure that we can reopen our schools at the end of the month. We are fully focused on ensuring our children have a safe environment to return to and the work you are doing is critical to achieving that goal,” Foley said. 

I hope that these extra resources are of value to schools as they continue their preparations. It is important that we put an emphasis on the wellbeing of the whole school community as this year’s school reopening will pose different challenges for everyone.

“We will continue to communicate with principals, students, parents and all stakeholders over the next couple of weeks and update all materials as necessary.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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