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students studying in university library
students studying in university library

Getting smart with the school run: How today’s tech can safeguard our children when travelling to school

By: Godfrey Ryan, CEO of school transport provider Kura

Among the more emotive topics discussed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been the return of children to schools. With community outbreaks being linked to transmissions within the classroom, everyone from cabinet ministers, to scientists, to parents, to the children themselves have expressed concerns around safety.

For the most part, schools have responded deftly, implementing various strategies such as strict social distancing guidelines, organising single year group only assemblies, and the installation of sanitising stations in multiple locations within the school grounds.

However, it is the journey to and from school where the best efforts of all responsible for children’s safety risks is being undermined.

Despite the ongoing digitisation within the classroom environment, with interactive whiteboards, tablets, and bespoke educational software now the norm, the school bus run remains a relic of the past.

Not only have these vehicles barely evolved over the decades but with around a quarter of traffic during rush hour still attributed to school drop-offs and pick-ups, the impact too from cars on congestion, pollution, student safety, and wellbeing is proving unsustainable.

As with so many obstacles we have faced over the decades, technology is emerging to provide the answers for even this most contemporary of problems – how the school run can be made safer, greener, and smarter.

To be safe, we’ve got to get smart

Current measures to protect children who take the bus to school generally consist of social distancing strategies such as instructing the first pupils boarding to sit at the rear of the vehicle, cordoning off every alternating seat, and drivers exiting the vehicle when pupils board and alight.

However, such analogue methodologies are limited in their efficacy and it’s a fact parents are becoming increasingly aware of. A survey undertaken by Kura revealed growing parental concern around the inability to track their children during journeys to and from school with one in five parents (21%) claiming they would be reassured if they could track their child’s journey every day. Meanwhile, Google reported a 233% spike in searches for “school track and trace” between September and October 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.

To meet these new and very real pandemic­-inspired concerns, technology has been developed which not only alerts parents when their child taps on and off a service using an issued NFC tracking fob, but can also be used to support contact tracing.

This means that, where a confirmed or suspected case is reported, a transport provider can generate a contact-tracing report and provide the school with all the necessary data. Equipped with this data, the school can quickly identify those in contact with the student presenting Covid-19 symptoms – even during the journey – and immediately alert parents.

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From a safeguarding perspective, data collated from the fobs can be checked against the expected list for that day and parents can also track their child’s journey in real-time.

Moreover, school bus drivers can use dedicated apps on their mobile devices to transfer all data and communications seamlessly and securely, meaning the school can monitor every aspect of the journey across every route, including location and speed of travel.

We can’t safeguard children without safeguarding the environment

Increased car usage for school runs is a regrettable consequence of Covid-19, with Kura’s survey showing nearly one in four schools (23.2%) believing that parents will favour driving their children to and from school themselves to minimise transmission risk.

The inevitable consequence of this is more cars on the road, leading to increased congestion, an uptick in carbon emissions, and school entrances becoming a melee of moving vehicles. Yet, as long as bus companies are unable to offer Covid-secure travel equipped with tracking technologies, this will be the preferred option for many parents.

By embracing new technologies and implementing them smartly, schools can improve pupil safety and wellbeing, remove the burden of the school run from parents, and significantly improve the school’s carbon footprint – as well as reducing congestion in the local area.

For the pupils, it means Covid-secure travel, safer access to and from the school entrance, cleaner air, and thousands of kilos of CO2 prevented from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to a climate crisis that could yet define their futures.

Schools have done incredibly well to survive, now it’s time to thrive

Though the vaccine rollout is removing some stresses, schools remain under enormous pressure to ensure pupils’ education resumes with intensity and is protected from further Covid-19 disruption.

Having spent over a year either closed or in some form of survival mode, schools must now look to innovate and adapt to what will be, in many respects, a different world. Apart from smooth and secure school runs providing the ideal start to a day of learning, the ability to manage them and be flexible to changing demand and geographic spread of students allows schools to differentiate themselves from others and aid the transition from survive to thrive.

As it stands, despite 40% of schools believing technology is key to more efficient management, less than a quarter (22.8%) have invested in tech to manage school transport over the last decade. Raising that figure could deliver profound advantages to schools, parents, the environment, and, most importantly, to our children.

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