A frustrated parent of two primary school children with special needs has spoken about the ‘distressing’ experience of accessing a school bus place for her five-year-old daughter.
Rosanna Phelan is optimistic that the issue will finally be resolved this week, however, for the past four weeks she has been forced to drive her daughter Holly to school and back on a daily basis, while her son Conor (8) has travelled by bus.
Living on the north side of Drogheda, both of her children attend school in Duleek in special needs classes.
Conor is in third class while Holly has just started in Junior Infants. Conor has been availing of the school bus for three years, but Holly still hasn’t been able to access the service.
Speaking with the inspector from Bus Éireann for her area in March, she was told that at the time he imagined Holly would be on the bus in September and that a new bus would be set up before then.
"I had filled out Holly’s transport application in January and she had been approved in February, so as far as I was concerned there was no issue with Holly’s transport,” said Rosanna.
However, seven days before Holly was due to start school, Rosanna received an email from Bus Éireann stating that while Holly had been approved for transport, her bus had not yet been approved by the Department of Education, and therefore, she would have no school transport until further notice.
“I was very distressed by this news,” says Rosanna, “I spent that entire day on the phone trying to get it sorted. I spoke to the school transport office in the Department of Education and they approved the route while on the phone to me and told me to contact Bus Éireann again as it was back with them now.
"I spent two hours on hold to speak to the school transport section in Bus Éireann only for them to tell me that they don't deal with special education transport.
"They gave me another number to ring which put me through to the National Council for Special Education, who couldn't understand why I was contacting them about it. They put me through to the Special Educational Needs Officer, who was sympathetic to my situation but also could not do anything to help me. I ended up then speaking to the principal of Holly's school who also had only just found out about the transport situation.”
Rosanna has been left with no other option but to drive Holly to and from school until her bus is set up. Due to the set up of the school, her son Conor is still availing of the bus.
“It’s 14km from my front door to Holly’s school. That adds up to 140km per week just to get my child to and from school. It’s no secret that there is a cost of living crisis and fuel prices have increased in recent months.
"I’m currently putting €70 worth of petrol into my car per week just to bring Holly to school. My husband had to take time off work to collect her so that I can attend much-needed appointments with our disability team.
"I know there are delays across the board with school transport this year, but my own situation is absolutely ridiculous,” says Rosanna.
“I’m not the only parent affected by this. There are two other girls who started in junior infants with Holly who are also without transport.
"One mother lives in Bettystown and doesn’t drive. She has to get two buses to get to Duleek and then walk 15-20 minutes from the bus stop to the school. I give her and her child a lift back as far as Drogheda after school because she was having to get taxis and the cost was enormous. When she spoke with the inspector about this he suggested she keep her child at home until the bus is up and running.
"Special education transport was free before the Government made the announcement during the Summer, so it is incomprehensible that we are in this situation.”
Rosanna has contacted her local TD’s, the Minister for Transport and the Minister for Education, however she says she has been informed that the situation is not their job or that it will be sorted as soon as possible.
"It’s also important to highlight that this wouldn't be an issue if there were enough appropriate school places available. With an autism-specific class we just have to take the places wherever we can get them.
"My local primary school is 500 meters from my house but has no special classes. There is another primary school next door to that one, also with no special classes. If there were more appropriate places available I could just walk my children to school like everyone else in my estate.”
Another mother, who wishes to remain anonymous is also experiencing similar circumstances.
“My daughter finishes school at 2pm. A taxi has been provided to pick her up in the morning, yet there is no taxi to bring her home by 2pm.
"To my understanding, since taxi is approved to get her to school in the morning, it would be reasonable to assume that there would be a taxi to bring her home by 2pm and not half transport.
"My daughter has severe autism, severe sensory issues and nonverbal. The HSE has approved her care home support, which starts at 2:30pm until 4pm, therefore she needs to be at home on time to avail of her home support.
"I do not drive and have incurred debts to bring her home with a taxi since school resumed. At this point I cannot afford to dig myself further into debt.
"The situation is dire as she would risk losing home support provided by the HSE if this goes on any further. I have highlighted these issues to the school inspector and in his works he has said ‘I know its not ideal but would it be an option to keep her at home until we have the new service started and it could take her home at 2pm’.
"There is no reason why my daughter’s education should suffer because they have failed in their duty. My daughter is already at a disadvantage in comparison to her peers.
"No interim transport has been provided to mitigate the cost of transportation incurred by me. If I had taken the school inspector’s advice my daughter would have missed more than three weeks of school with no solution in sight.
"This is unfair.”