Parents are concerned that clinically vulnerable children are travelling to and from school with more fellow pupils than last year.
Social distancing measures have been reduced by Brighton and Hove City Council for its home to school transport service for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The changes for the new school year take effect just as the coronavirus vaccination is offered to 16 and 17-year-olds.
One parent, Diana Boyd, who chairs the Parent Carers’ Council (PaCC), and another parent, PaCC’s home to school transport representative Pippa Hodge, raised the issue in a report to councillors, while praising improvements in the service.
They highlighted the high local rate of covid-19, the more crowded vehicles and other factors causing parents concern in their report to the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee.
The committee is due to receive the report next Monday (13 September). It said that all healthy 16 to 17-year-olds and all clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) 12 to 15-year-olds should have received their first Pfizer vaccination before Monday 23 August.
Clinically extremely vulnerable children are those who have neurological conditions, Down syndrome, severe learning disabilities or who are immunosuppressed. They are likely to be at greater risk from covid-19.
The report said: “There is a tension between the current high levels of covid locally and the reversion to more of a normal service that means that vehicles will be fuller than the 50 per cent capacity that has been running over the past school year.
“This may prove challenging for some students who have become accustomed and thrived on quieter vehicles with fewer co-passengers.
“It may also create anxiety as well as a potentially significant risk for some families who have medically vulnerable children and young people.
“At the time of writing, all 16 and 17-year-old healthy young people and (below them on the priority list) all clinically extremely vulnerable 12 to 15-year-olds should have received their first Pfizer vaccination before Monday 23 August.
“As yet, this rollout hasn’t commenced so, in all likelihood, there will be families who are feeling concerned that their children haven’t had their first vaccination or haven’t had time to build up an antibody response.
“The close quarters of a ‘fuller’ vehicle for the duration of the journey (versus being in a ventilated classroom with outdoor breaks) could be a worry.”
There are currently 18 routes with six or seven students on board. Of these, seven are to primary schools, ten to secondaries and one is a college run.
PaCC has shared its concerns that extra pick-ups and drop-offs will mean journeys will exceed their upper limit of 45 minutes for primary school pupils and 75 minutes for secondary school students.
The report said: “Families do their best to ensure that children are ‘ready to board’, the turnaround on larger runs will be tight and delays are inevitable on ‘difficult mornings’, despite best efforts.
“We recommend that these busier runs are monitored and, if changes are necessary to reduce stress or lateness, that tweaks are made.
“Feedback from schools professionals as well as families and, of course, students themselves will help to assess the wellbeing of the arrangements.”
PaCC also said: “We acknowledge the hard work and commitment of the home to school transport team, operators and schools and colleges for pulling together in the most trying circumstances, not least with the additional logistical challenges of working from home.
“The uncertainty and stresses that have arisen due to the pandemic were sharply felt by all and perhaps this year, more than ever, the ‘travel bookends’ of the day were critical aspects of trying to maintain children/young people’s and their families’ daily routines.
“We are also aware that over the period of the pandemic, some crew members have passed away, and on behalf of the students and their families who knew and miss them, we wish to express our sincere condolences to their families and friends.”
Next spring, the committee is due to consider its options for the home to school transport service once the current contracts expire in August 2023.
The service was described as an “epic failure” after the council rushed into using a “dynamic purchasing system” to try to save money two years ago, leaving dozens of children without transport.
Investigations found the system was better suited to transporting stationery than school children.
Following investigations by an independent panel of experts, an independent barrister and a “member’s policy panel”, PaCC has worked with the council to try to improve the service.
In its report, PaCC said that whatever changes were made, the service should always keep the needs of young passengers at the centre.
The council’s service should continue to accommodate more eligible students without a drop in standards, PaCC said, and by working closely with the council’s SEND team, the service could be forecast with some accuracy.
PaCC said: “There may be a period of transition ahead but, to students and their families, any change must feel ‘seamless’, regardless of how it is procured.
“This will be one of the measures of a successful reprocurement process and PaCC will have a key remit to help to reassure students and their families around any changes.”
The council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee is due to meet at Hove Town Hall at 4pm next Monday (13 September). The meeting is scheduled to be webcast on the council’s website.
To read the full report, click here.
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