The 2021 school run

Key trends that will shape school transport this year, including bespoke contact-tracing technology, how COVID-19 affects travel routes and best practice in safe transportation

Last year was extremely turbulent for schools, with repeated, often last-minute, closures causing chaos for teachers, pupils and parents alike. These challenges continued into the new year. Even with vaccination programmes currently in progress, there’s little doubt that the events of 2020, along with the latest closures, will leave their mark on schools for years to come.

A key area of focus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been home-to-school travel; specifically how pupils can be transported to and from school safely, without compromising other areas. The deadline for all home-to-school transport to comply with Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) by July 2021 needs particular consideration.

This is a challenge only likely to increase as schools reopen – particularly as confidence in the safety of public transport during the pandemic remains low. This has raised questions as to how the school run can be better-managed in the future – taking on board the lessons learned last year: avoiding a return to polluting individual car journeys, removing parental pain points and keeping students and staff safe from infection.

But how does this look?

Using technology to minimise infection

As schools look to continue facilitating the safe transportation of pupils, we are highly likely to see technology play an increased role in managing school transport more effectively. There’s a clear parental desire for this, with searches for terms such as ‘school track-and-trace’ understandably surging throughout 2020, and Kura’s own research showing that over a fifth of parents would be reassured by being able to monitor their child’s journey to and from school every day.

Installing tracking technologies onto a school-managed vehicle (such as a school minibus or coach) means that pupils are able to ‘check in’ when boarding the vehicle, allowing schools to keep track of exactly who is on every vehicle, and quickly alert teachers and parents (of pupils on the same service) in the event of infection. Not only does this meet the safety concerns for parents around knowing where their child is on their route – essential for safeguarding – but this digital ‘register’ of pupils facilitates contact-tracing and minimises the risk of viral outbreaks.

Technology can also be a key enabler in ensuring maximum efficiency for schools in terms of vehicle and route management, further enabling safe social distancing. Specifically, route optimisation technology can be used to allow schools to plan out optimal travel routes, pick-up and drop-off points for their pupils ahead of time, working with parents to ensure pupils can remain within their bubbles and minimise contact as much as feasibly possible. Optimised routes lead to shorter travel times for higher efficiency, less congestion, lower pollution and happier students.

Ensuring PSVAR compliance

The PSVAR applies to all new public service vehicles introduced in 31 December 2000, with a capacity exceeding 22 passengers and used to provide a local or scheduled service.

It has always been understood that home-to-school (H2S) transport was not in scope as it fell in the same category as day and school trips – where the passengers were known in advance and an accessible vehicle could be procured if there was a need.

school run

By mid-2019 it became apparent that the Department for Transport (DfT) was categorising H2S transport as in scope of the regulations, which caught the industry by surprise, meaning there were not sufficient compliant coaches to provide H2S services. In recognition, the government provided an exemption to July 2021.

There are a few issues surrounding the designation of H2S as in scope which makes implementation problematic:

  • Availability of compliant vehicles – many operators have not been able to retrofit their fleets to schedule due to COVID impact on income
  • Inclusivity – as it takes about 15 minutes to activate and operate a chair lift on a coach, this impacts the pickup times for all other passengers in order to ensure the vehicle still arrives at school on time, which may cause unwelcome attention to the child
  • Use of existing stops – coach lifts operate to the side of the vehicle, however, many school collection and drop-off points are not designated bus stops and the deployment of a lift either cannot be carried out safely or without causing significant traffic issues

Kura is leading an industry group whose position is that all parents of a disabled child should be offered the choice of a private vehicle, such as a taxi, or join the main school route. The group is also lobbying for a coach operator to have 10% of their H2S fleet equipped for full accessibility, ensuring that, if a disabled child was booked on any route, the capacity would exist to meet their needs.

A need to maximise efficiency per vehicle

When schools are able to reopen, there is a possibility that school transport routes may be significantly different. Over the past few weeks, there have been calls for ‘single-school’ transport to be adopted on safety grounds, wherein one vehicle would carry students from one school only, rather than picking up from multiple schools, to minimise infection risk.

Whether single-school transport comes to pass or not, or when in-person schooling resumes for all, each vehicle will carry fewer pupils-per-journey than in pre-COVID times, meaning that schools must consider how to ensure all pupils who need school-managed transport can get to school on time. If the capacity is available, assigning multiple vehicles to each transport route is an effective temporary measure.

Alternately, we may see schools running ‘staggered’ shuttle services, wherein one vehicle runs the same route multiple times – with sanitisation precautions taken between each trip – picking up the pupils that live furthest away from the school first, then making another trip for pupils who live closer to the school, to keep passenger numbers low and ensure full social distancing on board the vehicle. This will have an impact on the school timetable.

Whatever 2021 should bring for the education sector, it’s clear that the challenges of last year did not, unfortunately, entirely dissipate when the clocks struck midnight on New Year’s Eve 2020. Difficult months lie ahead, however, schools that invest in measures to reassure parents and ensure regulatory compliance now will reap the dividends when life begins to return to normal, allowing the school to emerge from the pandemic stronger than when they went in and putting themselves in good stead to thrive this year and beyond.

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