School transport companies have not yet been informed about their operational procedures due to Covid-19 for the upcoming scholastic year, one company told The Malta Independent.
The reopening of schools after their closure for many months due COVID-19 has been a topic of controversy over the past month. Education Minister Owen Bonnici has insisted that Malta is in a good position to have schools reopen on 28 September and said that the ministry is currently working on protocols alongside the health authorities.
He has also said that there have not been any Covid-19 transmissions in SkolaSajf schools and childcare centres, arguing that this proves the efficiency of the precautionary measures that were implemented at an educational level during the summer months.
However, not much has been said about school transportation, which is usually packed with children from all age groups crammed together in a small space – not leaving much room for the required COVID-19 social distancing and hygienic measures.
Earlier in the week, The Malta Independent spoke with a representative of the transportation company Co-op Services Ltd, to see if anything has been discussed in this regard.
“At this stage we are waiting to have a meeting with the Education Department. We will follow any directives that they receive from the Health Ministry,” a spokesperson for the company said.
The spokesperson explained that they will wait for the school protocols to be issued before making any plans, and that they have been informed that they will have meeting very close to the reopening date in order for everyone to be given a clearer picture about the situation.
This newsroom asked if the company thinks that it might have to increase its fleet if the COVID protocols will require them to take less students on-board than usual due to social distancing measures.
“Our fleet cannot increase from one day to the next,” the representative said. “Maybe those who do not work with the state or children schools can give a helping hand depending on vehicle capacities.” The representative noted that that there has been a considerable investment in increasing the van capacity, as almost all vans with a 14-person limit have been increased to 20 people.
Asked if they believe that the number of trips taken will increase if the health authorities inform them that the vans can only carry a small number of students rather than their full capacity, the representative said that they will have to see what directives are issued and work accordingly.
“When you have been working in this industry for 30 years you come to understand that when it comes to school transport, you are one of the last people to be informed about the scholastic year. There were instances in the past where we were given work by the state just two days prior to schools’ opening, so we are used to being brought into the loop very late in the process.”
The representative said that sources from the Education Department indicated to the company that they will be given an idea as to how things will be run by 14 September.
Similar questions on school transport measures were sent to the Education Ministry, however no replies were received by the time this article went to print.
Gauci explained that “it will be beneficial to keep students in bubbles, always in the same group as much as possible, as it will decrease transmission between larger groups of students.”
Discussions are currently underway with the Ministry of Education in order to provide them guidelines which are drawn up by the health authorities, she said. These include basic principles such as social distancing, keeping the same group of children together as much as possible, as well as basic hygiene protocols.
She recognised the importance of schools reopening as “students need their education. We need to work together in order to decrease the rate of active cases as this will be beneficial when schools open.”
Additionally, Gauci mentioned that “the health authorities as well as the Ministry of Education will consult with the World Health Organisation on this issue to gather as much information as possible so as they can manage the situation safely.”