MIAMI—Less than three weeks after schools reopened in central Florida’s Polk County, Mark couldn’t help but notice some students riding his bus slack off when it came to coronavirus safety precautions.
“The first week was fine,” said Mark, who like other bus drivers in the Polk County school system asked to use a pseudonym for fear of professional retaliation. “They were sanitizing their hands as they got on and off the bus and wore their masks properly. Now it’s a constant battle to make them do what they are supposed to do. They are getting tired of it.”
Mark, whose route includes Lakeland Senior High, the Polk public school with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at 16, said last week he had students who flat-out refused to put on their masks. “It’s a little unnerving, but at the same time I have to do everything I can to keep them safe and keep myself safe,” Mark told The Daily Beast.
“It doesn’t help matters when we aren’t being told if we may have come into close contact with a positive case,” he added.
Mark is one of three bus drivers who spoke to The Daily Beast about grumblings among their colleagues that Polk County Public Schools are not protecting them from possible exposure to infected students. Bus driver Janice shared with The Daily Beast Facebook posts showing at least half-a-dozen of her fellow co-workers describing experiences with possibly sick children on their buses. They also bemoaned school officials allegedly not telling them they were picking up and dropping off students who tested positive.
“Our group is not being notified when we have been exposed to positive cases,” Janice told The Daily Beast. “It’s happening way too many times. And we’ve had instances when they bring over a fevering, sick child to a bus and tell us to take the student home with a bus load of students.”
Their complaints underscore how low-wage public school employees such as bus drivers, custodians, maintenance crews, and cafeteria food servers are sometimes forgotten in the frantic push to reopen schools across America. That’s especially so in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis and State Education Commissioner Richard Cocoran have been staunch advocates of the Trump administration’s strategy of sending students back into classrooms over the objections of health experts.
With Florida daily coronavirus case counts and positivity rates having tumbled down from terrifying highs over the summer, public schools in Polk County are showing an alarming trend in the other direction. Since Aug. 24, the first day of school, 54 out of 150 schools have reported a combined 91 positive cases, according to the Polk County School District’s online COVID-19 tracker. Nearly a third of those cases were reported in the past week, and Polk County has the highest overall COVID-19 positivity rate of Florida’s most populous counties.
“We are on the front lines,” Mark said. “I am dealing with more than 100 kids a day at the highest risk school in the county. We are finding out from other students when someone tests positive or has been quarantined.”
Theresa, a third bus driver who spoke with The Daily Beast, described another problem: She has students on her bus whose siblings have been quarantined.
“It doesn’t make sense to have a brother or sister in the same household quarantine while other siblings continue going all over the place and being in contact with a lot of people, including us,” Theresa said. “If the child at home ends up testing positive, but their brother or sister has been riding with me all week long, I am being exposed too. It’s unacceptable.”
According to the Facebook posts, two more bus drivers said they noticed eight students from Ben Hill Griffin Elementary, McLaughlin Middle School, and Lake Gibson Middle School who normally ride their buses get pulled off the pick-up and drop-off schedule for the second week of school. One of them said they found out five students had been quarantined from other students riding the bus. “No school official told me,” the driver wrote.
Larry Milhorn, president of the Polk County Public Schools employees union, which represents bus drivers, maintenance workers, custodians, and cafeteria food servers, said the school district’s position is that state and federal privacy laws preclude the public disclosure of any information related to specific COVID-19 cases and individuals who have been quarantined. Unless an employee has been in direct contact with a presumed positive case for longer than 15 minutes, then the school district will not share any information with a concerned employee, Milhorn said.
It’s not just bus drivers who are being left in the dark, he added, claiming that custodial staff were also finding out about COVID-19 cases at their schools through the grapevine. For instance, a pregnant custodian who works at the same school as a co-worker who tested positive wasn’t aware of what happened until two other colleagues were instructed to quarantine, the union official said.
“I was told last Friday that she tested positive,” Milhorn told The Daily Beast. “She didn’t know she was infected and was still reporting for work because the contact tracing performed by the school didn’t put her in close vicinity of the custodian who tested positive before her.”
Milhorn said school district officials tell him they are following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Polk County office of the Florida Health Department in determining who is being told to quarantine. And it should be noted that no bus driver has been identified as testing positive for COVID-19 in the area.
But more than half of them are over the age of 50 and some have underlying medical conditions, Milhorn said.
“Their biggest complaint is the lack of communication from the school district,” he said. “I think we will keep hitting a brick wall until the CDC and the health department change their guidelines.”
A spokesperson for the state health department’s Polk office did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But Rachel Pleasant, a Polk County Public Schools spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast that under CDC guidelines, a bus driver’s typical interactions with students such as saying hello as they board the bus and goodbye as they exit would not qualify as a close contact because the interaction is very brief.
Pleasant said the school district has not had a situation where a custodial staff member did not feel safe and that custodians are provided with face masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, and an EPA-registered disinfectant. “If an employee did not feel comfortable cleaning a room because of possible health risks, we would bring in staff members from other locations, or an outside contractor if necessary,” she said.
Furthermore, Pleasant explained, if a contact-tracing investigation determines that any employee has come into close contact with a positive case for more than 15 minutes, appropriate health guidelines and procedures will be followed, including notifying the affected worker.
She added that the sibling of a student who has been placed into quarantine would be considered a secondary exposure, following the guidance from the CDC and Florida’s health department. “Secondary exposures may continue attending school until they or their sibling becomes symptomatic, or they or their sibling tests positive,” she said. “At that point, the sibling who was a secondary exposure would be quarantined.”
Using the same guidelines, Polk County Public Schools caps the maximum number of students on a bus to 51 instead of the usual 77. Pleasant said students taking part in virtual learning has also reduced demand for school transportation. “We are running our buses at two-thirds capacity to minimize exposure to both our students and staff members,” she said. “Our average bus occupancy so far this school year is 28 students.”
In the interest of student safety, Polk County Public Schools will not leave children at a bus stop if he or she appears sick, she explained. “We must transport the child to school so that he/she can be evaluated by the school nurse, and appropriate next steps can be taken,” Pleasant said. “We notified our transportation staff members prior to the start of the year, that if they pick up a sick child they should seat that child as far away from others as possible until they reach their destination.”
Students and staff are also required to wear face coverings, use hand sanitizer, and travel with several windows and roof hatches open to maximize air circulation, Pleasant continued. However, she said that when students test positive during school hours, they are placed into an isolation room until a parent or legal guardian comes to pick them up. “They are not on district transportation,” she said.
Dr. Marissa Levine, a University of South Florida public health professor, said the school bus precautions Polk County Public Schools implemented will, in all likelihood, lower the risk of coronavirus transmission. But she said bus drivers who are in higher risk categories of developing complications if they get COVID-19 require even more precautions, or else should be reassigned.
And based on the number of bus drivers complaining about a lack of transparency, Polk County Public Schools has to do a better job communicating, Levine—who advises transportation agencies—argued.
“In this case, bus drivers are raising their concerns so school leaders need to make sure they are providing the information their employees need,” she told The Daily Beast.
Based on the negative feedback the school district is receiving from its employees, Polk County Public Schools indicated it would change its communications procedures to include bus drivers.
“We understand and have heard from our employees that they would like to be formally notified about positive cases affecting the schools they service,” Pleasant told The Daily Beast. “We are developing a communications process, and we expect to have that in place this week. In communicating with our transportation employees, we must still abide by state and federal privacy laws.”
But Mark, the bus driver, said he and his colleagues should have been included from the start of the school year, noting the district has been informing faculty members and parents of students who come in contact with a presumed positive case. He and his co-workers are working long hours and pulling extra duties that they are not getting paid for, he claimed.
“My workday starts at 4:30 in the morning and doesn’t usually end until 5:30 in the evening,” he said, adding, “I also help hand out lunches. After each route, we have to sanitize the buses before picking up the next group of kids. That’s at least six cleanings a day.”
Despite the grueling work schedule and the threat of COVID-19 hanging over him, Mark said he still takes pride in being a bus driver. But as of Friday, he said, school district officials had not relayed any new plans to better communicate possible COVID-19 exposure to drivers like him.
“We are doing everything in our power to make sure these kids are safe on the way to and from school,” he said. “I’ve had some of the same students riding my bus for nearly three years now. They are like my own kids.”