BUS drivers have voiced concerns about social distancing on school transport as schools prepare to welcome students back to the new school year.
Local drivers, who will be returning to work on Monday, are said to be “feeling anxious” over lack of social distancing and protection on buses.
The Education Authority (EA) updated its guidance for home to school transport on Tuesday, and limited services will operate from August 24 to 28, with priority given to pupils in years seven, 12 and 14.
Normal services, including Translink’s dedicated school bus services, will resume from September 1.
The EA also urged students to wear face coverings on school transport, use hand sanitiser, maintain social distancing when possible and not to travel if they are experiencing any Covid-19 symptoms.
However, Kieran Ellison of Unite The Union, who has been representing EA bus drivers across Tyrone, said drivers are “anxious” about the return of school transport.
“Significant concerns are most acutely being felt by transport staff – drivers and escorts.
“EA have said that social distancing is encouraged but not required on dedicated school transport.
“However, there are bus drivers in Tyrone who will have an escort and up to 55 children on a bus at the one time.”
He added, “They have asked parents to find alternative ways to get their children to school but the reality is that people in rural areas are depending on the bus route.
“There will be no room for social distancing if the bus is full which is very real concern.”
Concerns have also been raised that screens have not yet been fitted into all EA buses, and masks are not compulsory on school transport.
Mr Ellison continued, “The EA is intending on putting up screens for the drivers, similar to what Translink have done.
“The guidance doesn’t say that they have to do this, but it would be welcomed by the drivers.
“This piece of work has not been completed yet, and we believe it could be weeks before the screens are implemented.
“The drivers are back on Monday, and we believe that we are not
even in double figures of numbers of buses that have been fitted for a screen so it could be weeks before these are in place.
“It is only recommended that children wear a face mask – it is not mandatory.
“If a child refuses to sanitise their hands or wear a mask, then the child is within their rights to refuse this,” said Ellison.
Issuing the guidelines, EA have advised drivers, “Only use school transport if you have no alternative to how children are getting to school.
“Social distancing is encouraged, but not required, on dedicated school transport. Dedicated school transport is any vehicle that only carries school pupils e.g. an EA yellow bus, Translink school service or taxi/bus contracted by the Education Authority.
“Face coverings are strongly encouraged on school transport if you are able to wear and use them.
“Face coverings are mandatory for over 13s on public transport.”