The leader of Kent County Council (KCC) says the local education authority cannot guarantee a “smooth outcome” over school transport when students return to classes in September.
Hundreds of Kent students rely on buses to travel to their schools in the 12 districts, but the majority have been studying at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Tuesday, July 7, that all children in England must go back from September. However, parents remain anxious over how their child will get to school with social distancing measures reducing the capacity on buses.
KCC’s school transport committee member, Cllr Barry Lewis (Lab), said the “clock is ticking” to find answers for families.
Cllr Lewis said: “We need clarity from the county council so each individual parent’s situation can be resolved and no child will miss out on education because of a lack of suitable and affordable school transport being available.”
Last week, KCC’s leader Roger Gough (Con) said that managing school transport would be “much tougher” for the local education authority than previous years.
Speaking during a full council meeting, the former education cabinet member said: “Social distancing requirements, even with some relaxation, will put pressure on bus capacity.
“Use of public transport, buses in particular, is discouraged but for many families there is no choice, quite apart from the damaging side effects of increased car dependency.
“To the extent that more bus capacity is required, KCC will be expected to intervene and to fund that. We recognise the importance of that issue to parents and schools and our public transport team is working flat out on it.”
Stagecoach is one of the main bus operators working in the county and serves most secondary schools in East Kent, including Thanet, but currently the service is operating at one-third of its usual capacity.
This means a double decker bus will be allowed to take only 32 passengers at one time instead of between 90 and 100 prior to the pandemic.
A Stagecoach spokesman said: “We’re awaiting clarification on what level of social distancing will apply for school children on buses and what arrangements may be required to maximise available capacity.
“Stagecoach is also in constant talks with Kent County Council about what to expect in terms of the demand for bus travel for different schools in the county.
“Our school liaison team are in touch with individual schools and we’re ready to do all we can to help ensure that children returning to school in September can travel safely by bus.”
Earlier this month, the Department for Education published advice for families on how their children should travel to and from school this September.
Parents, staff and pupils have been encouraged to walk or cycle to school if possible after the Government announced a £2billion package to promote pavement widening and pop-up bicycle lanes. Staggered school start times have also been mooted to avoid the rush hour.
KCC’s main opposition leader, Cllr Rob Bird (Lib Dem) recently said Whitehall’s school transport proposals were “totally unrealistic” for much of Kent.
Speaking during last Thursday’s full council meeting, he added: “According to the Government we can cram into an aeroplane for a three-hour flight to the Canary Islands but it’s unsafe for our teenagers to take a bus to school.”
Cllr Richard Long (Con), KCC’s cabinet member for education, said the county council was planning for a “number of eventualities” for the school transport issue while Cllr Gough said that he was working closely with bus operators.
KCC’s leader added: “In this dynamic and difficult environment none of us can guarantee a smooth outcome, but we will do all we can to give clarity to parents and the best possible return to school.”
Not to mention the risk to the drivers of the coaches. Though there is evidence that children are less likely to suffer from catching the virus, they are perfectly capable of passing it on to older people, such as the bus driver, or their relatives, or school staff.
Bus drivers cannot “work from home” so have a raised risk of catching the virus and reacting badly when they do.