Karen Lin, Contributing Photographer
At Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, board members asked tough questions about a recent cluster of COVID-19 positive cases stemming from a school bus company contracted by the city.
On Oct. 30, Mayor Justin Elicker’s office announced in a press release that 11 bus drivers associated with First Student, Inc. — a company the city contracted for the transportation of New Haven public, parochial and private school students — tested positive for COVID-19. Effective that same day, the New Haven Department of Public Health announced that it would shut down the transportation company’s operations for two weeks, extending a previous two-day closure to Nov. 16.
Public Health Director Maritza Bond has since launched an investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak. While Bond was not present at the meeting, outgoing NHPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto revealed new details about the investigation and was questioned and criticized by BOE members.
“There are currently 27 positive cases arising out of First Student [as of Monday afternoon],” Pinto said at Monday night’s meeting. “There was definitely poor judgement on the part of some of the employees. A number of people attended a birthday party outside of work.”
Pinto said that First Student bus drivers first reported COVID-19 symptoms on Oct. 23 and 24. On Oct. 27, an employee with the company tested positive for the virus, prompting the initial shutdown of company operations on Oct. 28. The shutdown aimed to contain the spread of the virus and allow time for contact tracing.
Pinto said that First Student was initially “defensive” about providing information to city health officials about the case and the company’s response but has since cooperated with city investigators.
Pinto said that the company will conduct “widespread testing” of its employees on Thursday at a makeshift drive-through testing site. He said that the company plans to conduct random COVID-19 testing of its employees every four weeks thereafter. The Department of Public Health also said it expects the company to submit a “corrective action plan” sometime on Tuesday.
At the meeting, Pinto attempted to reassure the BOE that the city has the situation under control and will take appropriate action.
“We are trying to address this in a remedial fashion because this is a partnership and we do need to have First Student,” said Pinto “We do not downplay how serious this outbreak is.”
However, Pinto’s reassurances did not satisfy all board members. Some pressed Pinto for more answers and a promise to punish the company more severely.
“I am very concerned because the way this was discovered was that someone told [on the company],” said board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur. “Had no one told, then they would have continued to drive our students.”
Jackson-McArthur said that First Student is the only bus company with the capacity to offer transportation services to the Elm City’s students. However, she said she felt that the Department of Public Health’s reaction was too lenient on the company. She urged city officials to demand that the company conduct widespread testing for all bus drivers every four weeks.
In response to Jackson-McArthur’s concerns, Pinto called the city’s negotiations with First Student “tough but fair.”
At the meeting, BOE member Darnell Goldson argued that the city has mishandled the situation. He said he believes that health officials were wrongfully placing the blame on First Student employees rather than company managers, claiming that he had heard from a source that employees who reported COVID-19 symptoms were still asked to drive buses.
Goldson added that the company should have taken steps to address the reports of sick bus drivers, such as conducting temperature checks, well before the initial batch of 11 employees tested positive for the virus.
“To blame the staff is not correct,” said Goldson. “I agree with Dr. Jackson that we can’t [do] this kid-gloves approach with them. A week or two later, this could have infected a whole bunch of our kids.”
Before the shutdown by the Public Health Department, First Student transported students to city meal drop-off sites.
In addition to the First Student outbreak, the Board of Education discussed updates on the city’s first student council meeting, school resource officers and a recent decrease in magnet school funding.
New Haven Public Schools were originally slated to reopen on a hybrid in-person/remote basis on Monday. However, after the city saw a spike in its COVID-19 infections, NHPS is continuing online indefinitely.
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