KCC Travel Saver applications open next week as Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield asks how school transport plans in September will work
Parents in Kent have just weeks to decide whether to buy bus passes for their children in time for the new school year - at a cost of hundreds of pounds - despite ongoing questions about how the return to school in September will work.
Kent County Council has now opened applications for its Travel Saver pass but with no refunds available for the coming year, parents must think 'long and hard' about whether their children need the passes to travel to and from school - which are £360 each for children under 16.
KCC says parents can apply at any time but to guarantee passes are ready by the first week of term, applications must be received by August 9.
In Medway, parents who use the council's MYBus service for school travel with contractor ASD, which costs £315 for a school year, have also been written to asking if they wish to keep their child's bus place for September.
But with planning around September's return to the classroom still work in progress, particularly for secondary-aged children who arrive and move around schools in much larger numbers, it's unclear how parents can reach a decision.
Current government guidelines suggest pupils will be required to sit only on buses with their class or year group 'bubble' to limit any spread of Covid19.
Whilst just like the rest of public transport, face coverings could also be a requirement. Medway Council has already said on its website that pupils using ASD My School Bus services must wear a face mask.
Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield, who says some schools in her constituency have more than 80% of pupils arriving by bus on a normal day, has already been contacted by worried parents.
She said the county faces a 'secondary school transport crisis' unless the correct planning is being done.
She added: "Kent County Council need to update parents on their plans for secondary school transport in September. Keeping students safe extends beyond the classroom and KCC must work with transport providers to make bus journeys both possible and safe for both schoolchildren and the public.
"If that means greater funding is needed in order for providers to run more services, then this is clearly what needs to be done."
The Labour politician has written to KCC, transport secretary Grant Shapps and education secretary Gavin Williamson asking them to explain exactly how 'bubbles' can be maintained before and after school.
She wrote: "I am concerned that unless this is part of the council’s key strategic planning now, we will face a secondary school transport crisis in September.
"With social distancing, the bus capacity will obviously be much reduced, and without additional buses on the timetable, many students and their families will be left in limbo and forced to making choices between a parent going to work, or being available to take their child to school. Then, of course, there are those students whose parents do not drive."
Independent education advisor and former Kent head teacher Peter Read says he can't see how thousands of children can travel to school by bus while either maintaining social distancing or sitting purely in allocated bubbles.
He said: "I think this is all just unworkable. You cannot get the number of children on a bus and you cannot isolate only in groups.
"I don't think it's workable and schools will be blamed when it doesn't work."
Stagecoach, which runs a number of school routes across the county said it, along with other bus operators, were in talks with the Department for Transport.
A spokesman said: "We're awaiting clarification on what level of social distancing will apply for school children on buses and what arrangements may be required to maximise available capacity. We're also in constant dialogue with Kent County Council about what to expect in terms of the demand for bus travel for different schools in the county.
"Our school liaison team are in touch with individual schools and we're ready to do all we can to help ensure that children returning to school in September can travel safely by bus."
Arriva said it too was working with local authorities and schools where it offered bus routes and says parents should regularly check its website for information as it is released.
Whilst Chalkwell, which runs numerous school bus services to Sittingbourne schools, has launched a dedicated page on its website titled 'Covid secure school buses in September' which asks parents to fill in a form to say what transport their child may need in September and to receive the latest updates.
KCC says it has pushed back the Travel Saver deadline 'as far as possible' to give parents longer than it normally does to make a decision.
When applications open next week KCC says it will provide some general advice about the things parents will want to consider.
It added: " The under 16 Travel Saver Scheme is subsidised by KCC by over £8m every year. Each pass costs well in excess of the application fee paid and for this reason we cannot make refunds available, which is why we are encouraging parents to think long and hard before they apply.
"There are other, more flexible options available direct from the bus operators and parents can choose not to apply."
What do you think? Are you the parent of a secondary school pupil who is likely to have to travel by bus in September? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org