‘It’s easy for things to get out of control’
Days before a student stepped foot inside a school bus Wednesday, July 1 for their first day of summer school, Park Hill’s school buses, along with the district’s transportation building, were being doused with medical grade disinfectant.
A possible positive case of COVID-19 prompted the sterilization of the facility and the yellow-orange school buses. A female bus driver was informed by her son that he had exposed her to COVID-19 over Father’s Day weekend.
Before becoming aware of this information, bus drivers had already congregated outside the transportation facility on Monday, June 22.
Bus drivers were obligated to show up to bid on routes, regardless of whether or not bus drivers were planning on driving students to summer school.
Bus drivers for First Student, the Park Hill School District’s transportation provider, were frustrated over the obligation and many gathered in the parking lot without masks. The tight-knit group had no idea this simple encounter potentially put them at risk.
Upon learning of the possible exposure, a number of bus drivers have taken it upon themselves to get tested.
Natalie Page, a school bus driver with three school-aged children, put pen to paper to express her concerns to the school board. School officials were notified that bus drivers would be attending Thursday’s school board meeting.
Page was unable to appear in person to read her letter out loud to the school board. The day before the meeting, the district abruptly changed the meeting format from in-person to a video conference. Altering the format came as a surprise to many, particularly since the school board had gathered for an in-person meeting at the district office two weeks earlier for the first time in months.
Fortunately, the content of Page’s letter was read aloud during the live-streamed video conference Thursday night. Inside the letter, Page raised concerns about the possible exposure to COVID-19 and the inability to social distance on school buses.
“I wish to be transparent and say that this email is written from a place of extreme frustration and anger. It is my intent to hold back a majority of those emotions,” wrote Natalie Page.
“I also wish to state that when summer school originally opened, I did assign two of my children to attend, because I thought I might be working. But I have since changed my mind, due to the rising number of (COVID-19) cases. My children will now have to stay home, unattended, if I do work, because that is less harmful to their health.”
Page used the bus driver situation to reveal just how easily COVID-19 can spread undetected.
“There are already likely cases, due to exposure within the First Student driver staff, with tests pending. Of course, each of our board members probably know that because Park Hill is fogging the transportation building and buses, as I type, with medical grade disinfectant. My intent here is to make sure parents are aware of the situation, and how easy it is for things to get out of control, and how likely it will be that this disease will, in fact, be brought home to their family,” wrote Page.
Bus drivers could have been exposed to COVID-19 on Monday, June 22.
“No one will know the outcome until tomorrow at the earliest,” she wrote.
“If this should happen during summer school, all the Park Hill teachers and students would have been exposed before even realizing it, and therefore have to quarantine for 14 days. I understand the need for our children to be educated but at what cost? Is our conscience willing to justify that?”
While bus drivers are expected to fulfill their prescribed role on buses, school board members are holding a video conference citing social distancing precautions.
“We question how the board can place their health and protection at a higher standard than that of their students, teachers, drivers, monitors and district families. It seems obvious that the board does acknowledge the importance of social distancing and might not be able to see all the inabilities of staff and students–within the summer school program–to uphold the same necessary standards. For instance, the bus drivers do not have the ability to social distance when any student boards or dis-boards,” said Page.
Plexiglass barriers between the driver and students were not installed. Bus drivers have also pointed out that there are only 24 booths on the bus. On one route, there are 39 students.
“They will not be able to social distance,” wrote Page. “Even further, those students will sit at the same seats as the students I pick up 20 minutes later for the next school.”
“It is true that many people, including me, want to return to work and life as normal, but at what cost? While I dread the thought of being home with my own children for any longer, I know that I would not be able to live with myself if I was the cause of ill health for any other person,” wrote Page.
The district acknowledges it will not be feasible to provide social distancing on the bus. Instead, the district does require bus drivers to wear face masks and encourages students to wear them while on the bus.
Page questions whether it is reasonable to expect drivers and monitors to wear face masks in dreadful summertime heat.
“These masks, which studies show do not always work, are an encumbrance when on a bus,” said Page. “On a sunny 89-degree day, it is 124-degrees in the bus. Of course, we all know that 89 degrees is by far not the hottest temperature that July sees. If a driver were to overheat while driving, they could potentially pass out and leave a dangerous situation for the moving bus.”
Neither administrators nor school board members addressed the issues raised in the letter during the two-hour school board meeting. According to Park Hill’s health and safety protocol, parents are encouraged to drive their children to school “instead of sending them on the bus.”
The district has added a multitude of safety precautions, like opening windows, disinfecting all interior surfaces on the bus at the end of each route and assigning seats with siblings sitting together.
The seat directly behind the bus driver will remain vacant on routes and “First Student will assign drivers to a single bus and route if possible.”
First Student has trained drivers about health and safety precautions for COVID-19.
Additionally, the school board approved a $78,120 emergency purchase of hand sanitizer for schools and buses.
PEDIATRICS GROUP OFFERS GUIDANCE
On Friday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released new guidance on schools reopening and physical distancing in enclosed spaces. According to their recommendation, “alternative modes of transportation for students” should be considered over the school bus.
For students who have no other options, the AAP recommends bus windows be left open if the weather conditions allow, minimizing the number of students on the bus and assigning seats so that the same students interact during their bus route.
Students should also be screened prior to entering the bus.
“Ideally, for students riding the bus, symptom screening would be performed prior to being dropped off at the bus. Having bus drivers or monitors perform these screenings is problematic, as they may face a situation in which a student screens positive yet the parent has left, and the driver would be faced with leaving the student alone or allowing the student on the bus,” states the AAP.
The AAP guidance states “drivers must wear face covering” and a physical barrier, like plexiglass, should be installed to separate the driver from students. Drivers should be at least six feet from students.