‘Student bubbles could burst on school buses’, warns Margate county councillor

Cllr Barry Lewis said people are discouraged from reporting incidents

By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan

Student bubbles could “burst” on the first day that all children return to school unless adequate transport plans are put in place, a councillor has warned.

Thanet county councillor Barry Lewis (Lab) has voiced concerns about pupils “rushing” onto school buses without proper supervision. He fears this will lead to students mixing with peers outside of their class or year-group “bubble”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Con) has said it remains a “national priority” to get every youngster back to school next month. Kent County Council (KCC) says it awaits “detailed guidance” around school transport provision.

So far, the local education authority says that pupils aged over 11 will have to wear a face covering unless they have an exemption. No standing will be allowed on school buses and strict social distancing rules will be imposed.

But, Cllr Lewis, who is a school governor at Drapers Mills Primary Academy in Margate, said: “The problem I can see is that all the children rush to get on the same bus and the student bubble will burst.”

The Margate councillor’s comments came during a KCC scrutiny committee meeting where several councillors were told that emergency plans are being worked on to protect Kent schools from future coronavirus flare-ups.

KCC’s public health director, Andrew Scott-Clark, said that schools remain a “real worry” for the county council and described them as a “vulnerable setting” for potential future outbreaks – alongside care homes and prisons.

But, he said there have only been a small number of cases at Kent schools. In June, a Reception pupil tested positive for Covid at Dartford’s Sutton-at-Hone Church of England Primary School in Church Road, which saw a group of young children and staff forced to self-isolate.

Another child was diagnosed with coronavirus at St Francis Catholic Primary School in Maidstone during the same month. One of the class “bubbles” and some staff were told to self-isolate. The rest of the school remained open in line with public health guidance.

Mr Scott-Clark said: “Schools have done a fantastic job in managing bubbles and clusters of children, which has enabled them to manage this effectively.”

On Saturday, KCC’s highways team said it was waiting for clear advice from Whitehall bosses over school transport arrangements as Kent parents and councillors continue to seek clarity ahead of September’s planned reopening.

Stagecoach is one of the main bus operators working in the county and serves most secondary schools in East Kent, spanning from Ashford to Folkestone, but the service has been operating at one-third of its usual bus capacity.

KCC’s education cabinet member, Cllr Richard Long (Con) has said that face coverings will be recommended for younger children to wear – those aged under 11 – if they are “happy” to do so.

He also encouraged parents to purchase a Kent Travel saver card if eligible, saving students up to 50% on bus journey costs.

Kent County Council Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport Michael Payne said: “We know parents need certainty on transport arrangements for schools returning in September and as soon as government gives us that detailed guidance, we will advise on how it will work.

“You can be assured that there will be capacity on our hired transport and local buses to take your child to school safely.

“Behind the scenes we have been working with bus operators to ensure that our services are provided in accordance with the guidance, ensuring there will be enough room whether you take a taxi, bus or coach to school.

“If we need to hire more vehicles to keep people safe, we will do so.

“There are also plans being worked on to make a number of local bus services that operate on school days, which would normally carry children using a Kent Travel Saver Card, ‘school only’ buses, thereby restricting access.

“We have asked our local bus operators to make sure, as part of social distancing, that there is no standing on buses and face coverings for those over 11 and without an exemption are required.

“On these local buses, our operators have been and continue to work to government guidance, so there is social distancing on buses alongside a range of other measures.

“If you view operator websites, many have videos which show you the cleaning regime they do to make travel as safe as possible.”

Kent Travel Saver Card

KCC Cabinet Member for Education and Skills Richard Long added: “For those who normally purchase a Kent Travel Saver Card, if you don’t feel happy to purchase one now, we have committed to provide a pro-rata cost pass, once government guidance on social distancing changes fully.

“Although August 9 is the deadline for Kent Travel Saver Card, to guarantee it for first day of term, be assured if you apply after this date, we will endeavour to get a pass out to you as soon as we can.

“Since the coronavirus pandemic started, we have had a transport protocol in place for operators who provide our bespoke hired transport, which clearly sets out the safety measures they need to take to keep your child safe.

“For the hired transport we ask parents to follow the same as local buses – face covering for those over 11 and without exemption.

“We recommend it for younger children, if its ok for them to wear them and they are happy to do so.”