Extra school bus secured amid pupils' Covid fears
AN extra bus is being put on for school pupils after concerns about the mixing of 'bubbles' were highlighted.
Education minister Peter Weir was told it was unacceptable to expect young people from different schools to share transport.
An issue concerning two schools in Co Down was raised by Gerard Curran (17), an upper sixth pupil at Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle.
He said there was no social distancing possible on board one double-decker bus.
Students from Shimna IC and Kilkeel High School have been sharing since the start of term.
It was intended that Kilkeel pupils would sit on the bottom deck and Shimna on the top, but this was abandoned due to the bus being full.
While bubbles operate in schools to stop the spread of coronavirus, this is more difficult to maintain on transport.
Gerard described the situation as a "shambles", claiming he had been forced to choose between the safety of his family and his education.
"I had to make the difficult decision to start home learning as my mother and brother are both very vulnerable. However, I returned to school after Translink said they had fixed the issue and we will no longer be mixing," he told The Irish News.
"When I got on the bus our schools were once again mixed together, once again destroying these supposedly safe bubbles Peter Weir likes to talk about. How can he say that schools are safe when as you are trying to come home they mix two separate school communities together?"
Gerard, whose case has also been highlighted in his local Mourne Observer newspaper, sent two letters to Mr Weir and said he had not yet received a response.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said the Education Authority continued to work with providers to ensure safety and an additional bus has been added to the route.
"The services to Kilkeel High School and Shimna College are operated by Translink. It confirmed that at the start of November, capacity concerns were brought to its attention on the service to these two schools. After closely monitoring numbers, Translink added an additional bus to this route, with one bus servicing each school," she said.
"The guidance recognises that children should, as far as possible, sit beside their siblings on a bus and/or be grouped together by year group or school, however it is acknowledged that there will be limits to the extent to which grouping can be arranged and so there may be mixing of wider groups.
"It also states that on many dedicated school transport services, pupils from more than one school will be on board."
She added that the use of consistent bubbles was not an "all-or-nothing" approach.
"It would not be possible to transport over 80,000 pupils each day with social distancing in place and it would be likely that many pupils would be unable to attend school in this scenario when the risks to pupils' mental health, social development and educational outcomes would be significant," she said.
"The department first received correspondence from Gerard on this issue on 6 November and, in line with departmental protocols, a response will issue within two weeks of receipt."