School bus drivers have expressed concern over the lack of social distancing from services traveling at full capacity, with many children not wearing masks.
The Unite union said it was “extremely worried” that drivers risked catching Covid-19 on “crowded” buses.
Social distancing is not mandatory on dedicated government-run school buses across the UK, although it should happen where possible.
The government says it is providing 40 million pounds to help increase capacity.
Government guidelines for England state that, where possible, social distancing should be ‘maximized’ between individuals or ‘bubbles’ of children who stay together throughout the day.
Other recommended safety measures include more frequent cleaning, maximum ventilation through opening windows and ceiling vents, and seating to ensure children sit with their ‘bubble’. if possible.
The guidelines say the measures strike an ‘appropriate balance’ as the overall risk to children of serious illnesses from Covid-19 is very low, they do not mix with the general public on school buses, and services often carry them. same children regularly. based.
Similar guidelines are in place for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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Sheamus Greene, who drives a school bus in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, which takes in 45 children and travels at full capacity, says there is no social distancing on the service.
He says the bus carries children from eight different schools, who are on board between 20 and 35 minutes.
Students over 12 are advised to cover their faces, but Mr Greene says only around 50% of his bus do.
Unlike public transport, face masks are not mandatory on dedicated school buses in Northern Ireland, Wales or England, although they are recommended. However, they should be worn by children aged five and over as part of services in Scotland.
Mr Greene, who is also an adviser to Sinn Féin, said a plastic screen was fitted around his driver’s seat after raising his concerns to the Education Authority – but he is not airtight.
He says there is very little ventilation on the bus, with only one skylight window that can be opened and this must be closed if it rains, which he fears will allow the virus to spread further. easily.
Children are at extremely low risk of getting sick from Covid-19, but the evidence for their likelihood of spreading the virus is less certain.
Mr Greene, 55, says he is concerned about the transmission of the virus to family members at home, who have underlying health issues making them more vulnerable to Covid-19.
“There are a lot of drivers in this field between the ages of 70 and 60, and I know some of them have underlying health issues as well,” he adds.
“I don’t know of any other job where people are supposed to do what school bus drivers are supposed to do – sit in a confined space with up to 50 people for six hours a day.
Mr Greene says he wants to see evidence that traveling without social distancing is safe – and, if it isn’t, he says capacity should be reduced.
A spokesperson for the Education Authority said it had put in place a series of safety measures, in line with government advice, including distributing more than 150,000 items of PPE to drivers, the installation of hand sanitizer screens and dispensers on vehicles and improved cleaning.
“Our drivers and escorts play a vital role in providing children and young people with access to education, and their health and well-being is important to us, so we are committed to keeping our guidance up to date in accordance with government advice, ”the spokesperson said.
“Colds are rife”
Michael – not his real name – drives a minibus to a specialist school in Surrey.
With children traveling in the vehicle for up to one and a half hours each morning, Michael, who is 61 and has asthma, says he is “very worried” about catching the virus.
“During the winter season, colds are common because they just circle the vehicle,” he says.
“While the common cold can hiss around a vehicle very easily, I am very concerned that the coronavirus can also spread during the cold season. ”
The vehicle can carry up to eight passengers, but after Michael raised his concerns with his employer, the capacity was reduced to seven, leaving a one-seat space between him and the next child.
While the children wear masks, Michael – who does not want to use his real name for fear of losing his job – says they are not worn properly, children’s noses often uncovered.
He wants capacity reduced to four passengers to allow social distancing and medical grade masks for drivers.
A spokesperson for Surrey County Council said the council and the Department for Transport have provided advice to schools and bus operators on how to safely manage school transport.
“It is important that we all work together to ensure that appropriate measures are in place and that the risk to passengers, drivers and passenger assistants is minimized, so we are always ready to discuss any concerns with operators. transport, ”he said.
Unite’s national passenger transport agent Bobby Morton said social distancing and masks should be mandatory on school buses.
According to him, a lack of consistency in the orientation of public transport and dedicated school services means that the situation varies across the country, with some buses being “filled” with children.
“I get call after call from drivers telling me they’re very, very scared,” he says.
“Not only could they be infected themselves, but when they return home from their shift, they could unintentionally pass the virus on to family members.”