Colorado school bus staff face COVID outbreaks

School bus shown in the rear-view mirror of a vehicle.
Colorado school bus staff have faced outbreaks that make it more difficult to keep up services. (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

Besides students and teachers, another group of school employees are getting sick with COVID: bus staff.

At least six Colorado school districts have reported outbreaks of COVID among transportation employees, and some of the outbreaks are larger than those reported in most schools. While the trend hasn’t prompted a change of safety guidelines, it complicates the challenge of providing busing for students learning in person.

One of the larger outbreaks affected employees at a bus terminal for Jeffco Public Schools. The coronavirus sickened 12 employees, according to state records, although local public health officials put the number at seven. Jeffco is the state’s second-largest school district and continues to offer in-person learning even as many neighboring districts have moved most students online. Denver Public Schools has also reported four affected bus staff.

Jeffco school district officials refused to answer questions about the cases, or service interruptions, other than to say that that bus service in some areas was cancelled this year “for a brief period.” The district also said in an emailed statement that there have been “a few instances where non-driver transportation staff, who have the qualified licenses and training, have had to pick up bus routes here and there, including the executive director of the department.”

Jeffco bus driver Wally Maistryk, president of the Jefferson County Transportation Association, said the lack of clarity on the cases still has bus staff on edge.

“We’re pretty nervous about this stuff,” Maistryk said.

In Montrose, school bus service was completely cancelled for three days after two transportation staff members tested positive, prompting the contract transportation company to require all bus staff to get tested before returning to work. The district put students who could not get to schools without the bus on remote learning during those days.

In the Brighton-based 27J school district, an outbreak with four confirmed cases and an additional four possible cases have not caused service interruptions as other drivers picked up the extra routes.

Earlier this school year, districts had cut transportation services because of the challenge of limiting the number of students riding on each bus.

Jeffco public health officials said that the investigation into the recent Jeffco cases among transportation staff revealed that many may have been exposed outside of work.

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“The staff members involved sort of socialize outside of work, and through our investigation we realized there were multiple social gatherings,” said Christine Billings, Jeffco’s head of the Office of Pandemic Response.

In Brighton 27J, the Student Health and Wellness Coordinator Rhonda Plambec said that the district made similar findings in investigating its own outbreak.

“Our staff are so connected in the community,” Plambeck said. “It could be this person’s mom works at another school or they babysit for each other. It’s fascinating to see how close our community is.”

Officials have said that since the period between contracting the virus and showing symptoms is so long, it’s often hard to know where someone was exposed. State public health officials define an outbreak as a situation in which two or more people at a particular facility or event have confirmed or probable COVID diagnoses within two weeks of each other. 

“It’s easy to get on the outbreak status,” Plambeck said.

Plambeck also said 27J leaders believe their safety guidelines are enough, but have sent reminders for staff to follow the rules and have held staff meetings to clarify any confusion about the rules.

Billings said that officials from local public health agencies meet regularly to share information on outbreaks in their communities. This week, agencies also started setting aside a time to talk exclusively about school-related outbreaks.

But, she said, the bus staff outbreaks haven’t raised an alarm.

“Our guidance hasn’t changed and since we didn’t see secondary spread, they did a good job,” Billings said, meaning the virus didn’t spread beyond the initially infected transportation staffers.

State guidance requires bus employees to wear masks, screen for symptoms each day, and maintain 6 feet of distance from others. Bus staff also have to follow cleaning protocols for their buses.

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Jeffco bus driver Maistryk wants school districts to be more transparent with staff about cases.

“We all understand there’s privacy laws and stuff, but we just need to know more,” he said.

Maistryk and union officials have asked Jeffco to make information about staff outbreaks in non-school buildings available on the district’s dashboard.

According to the union, district staff refused, reportedly saying that “posting on a dashboard an administrative building outbreak or a bus terminal site outbreak, immediately focuses the outbreak to the public directly on our staff. This is inappropriate to their privacy rights.”

One example of poor communication that Maistryk fears puts drivers at risk is regarding quarantined students. He said in one case, a student who he knew was supposed to be on quarantine was allowed to return to school early, but Maistryk didn’t know it had been allowed until he saw the student at the bus stop.

“I have to trust the parents, now luckily it was OK, but I never got communication that it was OK,” Maistryk said. “It should be simple.”

“It stresses the heck out of all of us,” Maistryk said.

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