I did an interview last August with a major business daily but I couldn’t find it as published as part of an article. The topic was a very timely one as children return to schools for face-to-face (F2F) classes. Here are the questions sent to me and my responses as I remember them:
1. How will the transport sector cope with the expected increase in demand as more schools resume face-to-face classes?
For schools located in the cities, what we see is people opting to take private transportation in the form of cars or motorcycles to take their children to school. This is because public transportation supply is still not back to pre-pandemic levels while at the same time, parents and guardians and even students who commute by themselves (e.g., high school and college levels) may be hesitant to take public transportation as well as school service vehicles. The latter may be attributed to concerns about the safety particularly with regards to health (i.e., getting infected or exposed to Covid-19 if they take public transport or a vehicle where they share the ride with many other people). We need more public transportation capacity to be able to address the increased demand brought about by students coming back for face-to-face classes. We also need to have other options or alternatives for their safe journeys including walking and cycling for their commutes.
For schools in the rural areas, there may be little adjustment concerning transport since most schoolchildren walk or take motorcycles or tricycles to school. This is perhaps because most schoolchildren reside within the school district and do not have long commutes like what we have in many cities (e.g., most schoolchildren who study at schools like Ateneo, LaSalle, etc. likely live in another city or town rather than near the schools).
2. How many school buses are expected to resume operations? How many of them have permanently closed?
I currently don’t have the data on that but LTFRB should have reference or baseline data. School service vehicles are required to register with the LTFRB and perhaps a look at the number registered before and during the pandemic could show how many can be expected to resume operations nationwide and per region. LTO doesn’t have these numbers as they only register by vehicle type. We will not know from LTO data which jeepneys, vans or buses are used for school service. Most school service are tied to the schools the student of which they provide transport services to. If the school closed, then chances are that the school service may apply to other schools. That said, the last two years where schools operated online were a backbreaker to many school service and only the registered numbers with LTFRB can tell us just how many are not returning at least for this school year.
3. How does the surge in fuel prices affect the operations of those involved in school transportation? Will this affect the ability of teachers, schools staff and students to travel on-site?
School services might increase their rates, which are usually monthly or semi-monthly. This is to make up for the increase in fuel prices and vehicle maintenance as well. This will likely only affect students’ travel rather than those of their teachers or school staff. The latter group will likely take public transport or their own vehicles for their commutes. In their case, their travel may be affected by transport fare increase or their own fuel expenses if they use their own vehicles. They have little choice though because they have to travel to work. Student though may still enjoy some respite as many schools are adopting blended or flexible schedules that will only require students to do face-to-face classes on certain days of the week.
4. What’s the long term impact of the pandemic on the school bus industry?
People will remain to be apprehensive in letting their children share a school van or bus ride due to the pandemic. We can only promote vaccination and compliance with health protocols to ensure that schoolchildren will have safe journeys as far as Covid-19 is concerned. The return to face-to-face classes this school year will perhaps help determine if the pandemic will have a long term effect on the industry or if people’s (parents and guardians) trust to school bus services will return within the short term.
5. How can school bus drivers and operators cope with the challenges posed by the pandemic and rising fuel prices?
LTFRB issued Memorandum Circular 2022-066, which adds health protocols for school service:
• Regular examination of the drivers and conductors’ fitness to work by checking their body temperature and screening for symptoms related to COVID-19.
• Regular disinfection of frequently-touched surfaces, such as but not limited to seats, armrests, and handles.
• Mandatory wearing of face masks at all times by drivers and conductors, including passengers.
School transport services must comply with these protocols and demonstrate the safety of their mode to convince people to return to using or subscribing to school service vehicles. Meanwhile, there is really no escaping rising fuel prices but collective transport in the form of school service vehicles are still more efficient and cheaper per passenger compared to using private vehicles; not to mention contribute to reducing traffic congestion along school routes. This must also be promoted (i.e., people made aware of the advantages) vs. private vehicle use.