Private school bus operators in Donegal are calling for a level playing field as their requests for support during Covid-19 go ignored.
School runs for thousands of pupils hang in the balance in September if private companies are denied the same support as those contracted under the School Transport Scheme.
Since 12th March, local companies say they have received no support other than the Covid-19 unemployment payment.
With no funds for maintenance or no supports to sustain social distancing, fewer companies will be available to provide their essential service in the new school year, leading to job losses and leaving families without transport.
Margaret Gallagher, who runs five buses for Illistrin NS in Letterkenny, says there is a vast divide in the industry.
“To date we have received no explanation as to why contracted operators received 100% of their contract the first two weeks when Coronavirus restrictions kicked in and 50% thereafter until the end of June, with a grant of €10,500 to restart them,” she said.
“We are one of various operators, including Cathal McGettigan, Gavin Friel of Michael Friel Coaches, Jim McGlynn, who all take a large volume of children that Bus Eireann do not cover.
“We’ve had nothing since the 12th of March, apart from the Covid-19 payment which just about covers your living expenses.
“We do maintenance work in the summer but we can’t pay for it. It seems to be an anomaly that private operators cannot claim the small business grant as we do not pay rates to the council nor can we claim loans as we have not had an income since 12th March.
“We have the same RSA safety rules as our counterparts. But we are not getting any help and they (contracted operators) are.”
Ms Gallagher added that private companies are not being supported in how to plan for safe social distancing transport policies.
“There has been no official statement to any operators to tell us what to do in September and what is expected of us. We need guidelines. If we have to run a 50 seater coach with 14 children it’s not sustainable unless we get a financial package from the government,” she said.
Another source of frustration for the private sector is the issuing of refunds to ticket holders for school closures.
“It makes it more annoying to think the parents who paid Bus Eireann are getting a refund. All the money that’s being paid to contractors is taxpayers’ money, so how can it be fair to give it to once section and not to the other?”
Momentum is gathering every day among private operators. A national group has estimated that 560 operators, running 3,057 vehicles transporting 90,000 children have been affected by the anomaly.
Ms Gallagher said: “40% of operators feel they won’t be in a position to open up without some form of government rescue package which would mean 21,000 children without a school bus
“Imagine the chaos this could cause at schools which are already overwhelmed by parent traffic.”
Private operators are planning further action if the government does not acknowledge their plight with a financial package to restart in September.
Ms Gallagher added: “Our next step would be to organise that all bus operators travel to Dublin when restrictions allow to protest at government buildings. We need ministers to pay attention to this and take it seriously. The support can’t come before school starts, we need it now to do our summer maintenance work.”