Thursday, 30 July 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
4. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if the school transport scheme will need to be expanded in view of Covid-19 and social distancing; and the steps that will be taken to ensure that no child that participated in the school transport scheme in 2019-2020 will be denied a seat in 2020-2021. [19312/20]
Among several welcome elements in the roadmap, which includes things that we had called for over time, some have raised huge questions and require significant clarification. One of the biggest is school transport. Some 120,000 children are carried every year by school transport programmes. Among any of the operators I have spoken to there is very little clarity and they have had very little communication on how that will be delivered. There is additional money but it seems to be for reconfiguration and hygiene, there does not seem to be anything in relation to capacity. Will the same amount of children as a last year be carried on school transport this year? Can the Minister make that commitment?
School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. In the 2019-2020 school year more than 120,000 children, including over 14,200 children with special educational needs, were transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country covering over 100 million km at a cost of over €219 million in 2019.
Earlier this week I announced a comprehensive plan detailing a package of measures and resources to be provided to facilitate schools in reopening. I also published a detailed roadmap for the full return to school. This roadmap set outs how schools will reopen for all students from the end of August. It has been developed in line with public health advice issued by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, the Roadmap for Society and Business, and follows comprehensive and intensive engagement with all relevant stakeholders, including Bus Éireann, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the National Transport Authority on the logistical considerations that arise in planning for the operation of school transport services for the reopening of our schools.
School transport scheme services operated by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department will fully operate as normal, in line with public health advice, when schools reopen for the 2020-2021 school year with the appropriate hygiene and other measures in place.
In line with normal practice, all children who are eligible for school transport and who complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport, but who complete the application and payment process on time, will be considered for spare seats that may exist after eligible children have been facilitated, such seats are referred to as concessionary seats.
All school transport services are reviewed over the summer months. Arising from this, routes may be altered, extended or withdrawn depending on the number and location of eligible children who will be availing of school transport for the following school year.
The option to make payment for transport for the 2020-2021 school year is now available. Given the exceptional circumstances I have asked Bus Éireann to extend the closing date for payment to 4 August 2020. Families wishing to avail of transport for the 2020-2021 year are advised to make payment by this date.
I heard Dermot O'Leary of the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, on the radio some days ago, shortly before the plan was published. He was speaking about whether he thought any additional capacity could be found and he expressed some scepticism. He is a stakeholder and I would hope that any engagement would have included unions such as the NBRU. He, like most of us, would have anticipated additional capacity. It would seem obvious, so many of us were left scratching our heads when the only thing in the roadmap published on Monday was money for hygiene and reconfiguration. That does not seem to be living in the real world. The deadline has been moved, and that is welcome, but 4 August is not very far away. Most parents and schools feel in the dark here. I ask the Minister directly, having asked her before and she did not answer, whether the school transport scheme will carry the same number of children or will parents and families be seeking refunds from Bus Éireann in late August and September. Will 120,000 children be carried?
To reiterate, in line with normal practice, all children who are eligible for school transport and who complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated in school transport services where such services are in operation. The plans that are in place for school transport are absolutely based on the public health advice available. It has recommended that children are regarded as a single cohort, will be given designated seats on the bus to and from school, they will sit with a sibling or class member, and €11.3 million in funding will be available to ensure that hand sanitiser, PPE for the bus driver, the intensive clean that must be done after children have vacated the bus, will all be covered. The provision for the buses to operate as normal is on the basis of the public health advice recommendation and availability. It is operating, as all the roadmap is operating, on the public health advice that is given and provided.
I have not disputed that but I asked about capacity. The Minister mentioned everyone who applies, but what if for any reason the capacity must be reduced. The providers, Bus Éireann, taxis and various companies, will have their own considerations. I asked the Minister this question which is what parents want to know. Of course they want to know about safety, where they will be sitting and so on, and the Minister has told us some of that detail, but that is all they know. What I want to know is whether all those children will have a place this September. Those concessionary places are important too. For many families they are the make or break provision, not some frivolous or trivial issue. I ask the direct question again: how many children will avail of school transport this September? Will 120,000 children avail of it this September? It is a very clear, simple question. I have asked it twice, but the Minister has not answered it. Will the Minister answer it please?
To a very clear question, I give a very clear answer, that which I have already given the Deputy. All children who are eligible for school transport and who complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated on school transport services where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport, but who complete the application and payment process on time, will be considered for spare seats that may exist after eligible children have been facilitated. Such seats, as the Deputy is aware, are referred to as concessionary seats. That is a very clear answer - all children who are eligible.