I propose to take Questions Nos. 213 and 214 together.
School Transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education. In the current school year over 113,100 children, including over 14,500 children with special educational needs, are transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of over €224.7m in 2020.
The Department has been engaging intensively with Bus Éireann in regard to the logistics for the safe operation of School Transport Scheme services for the 2020/2021 school year. Based on the public health advice published in July 2020, and the updated advice received from the HPSC on 7th August and from NPHET on the 18th August 2020, the Department has been planning for School Transport Scheme services for the 2020/2021 school year to fully operate, but with additional measures and hygiene requirements in place and with the rolling implementation of measures on post-primary services as required to provide physical distancing, using 50% of passenger capacity.
Government has agreed to provide the necessary funding to ensure that full implementation of the public health recommendation of running buses for post-primary children is achieved as quickly as possible on the post-primary scheme and on the special educational needs scheme for post-primary children. The implementation of 50% capacity has been put in place where possible over the last number of months while Bus Éireann is continuing to put in place the additional services required to fully implement the advice on all routes. Before Christmas circa 74% of total post-primary routes were operating at 50% capacity and planning is underway for all remaining routes to be implemented at 50% capacity in the coming weeks; this will be progressed as schools re-open.
Bus Éireann and the Department of Education have supported all bus contractors to put in place measures to support infection prevention and control on the buses. The Department has also issued detailed information and guidance to parents and children on the operation of school transport services for the 2020/2021 school year. Measures include all post-primary students wearing masks, all bus drivers and bus escorts receiving PPE where necessary, as well as funding to support additional cleaning and hygiene measures, including the provision of sanitiser on all buses. Seating plans with pre-assigned seating are in place on all routes, with children sitting next to their siblings or classmates where possible. This reduces the interaction of children on the buses with those outside of their family, class or school.