Courtesy of Sadie Marshall

New Haven Public Schools and the New Haven Department of Public Health have delayed a plan to allow First Student — the city’s sole contracted bus company, which shut down operations after a COVID-19 outbreak among its staff— to resume operations on Wednesday because city officials have not yet approved the company’s COVID-19 safety plan. 

At last week’s Board of Education meeting, members criticized First Student for reporting information about its employee COVID-19 outbreak to city health officials too slowly and for not taking sufficient COVID-19 prevention measures. The incident came to light after 27 company employees tested positive for COVID-19 following an out-of-work birthday party that many employees attended. Due to the outbreak, the Department of Public Health shut down the company’s operations for two weeks from the end of October through Nov. 16.

City officials planned to allow First Student to resume operations on Monday, but that date was again pushed back to Wednesday because the company’s COVID-19 safety plan had not yet been approved by health officials. That safety plan has still not been cleared. Despite continued communication from city officials and First Student about resuming operations and safety protocols, some community members said they have lost faith in First Student.

“I knew [an outbreak] was going to happen, I was the one that uncovered their lies,” said Sadie Marshall, a member of the City Wide Parent Team, in an interview with the News. “First Student is lying to the public by saying that they use a disinfectant that kills the coronavirus for 30 days when there is no such product that does that on the market at all.”

Marshall, owner of Sadie’s Professional Cleaning Services, has two children who have been attending in-person schooling since September and could have taken First Student buses to school because they are enrolled in the city’s limited special education program. However, she said she does not allow her children to ride First Student buses because she believes that they are not safe.

Marshall said that she reached out to First Student in September about their bus cleaning and disinfecting protocol. She said that a representative with the company told her that they were using a disinfectant called Zoono. Marshall said that she did her own investigation and called the makers of Zoono with Citywide Parent Team President NijijaIfe Waters on a Facebook Live in October. On the stream, Marshall said that the makers of Zoono confirmed that their product is not an EPA list N disinfectant, as claimed by First Student.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, Zoono is not a list N disinfectant — meaning that the agency does not claim it will kill COVID-19.

In a statement to the News, First Student described its safety protocols but did not address claims that the company is using Zoono.

“At First Student, there is nothing more important than the safety, health and well-being of our students and employees,” wrote Jay Brock, a First Student spokesperson, in the statement. “Most of the health department’s requested procedures, such as daily bus disinfection, return-to-work policy, and sick leave policies, are already in place. We are also instituting new cleanliness standards, ongoing randomized COVID testing, and disinfecting keys.”

Magaly Vega, a parent of three students at Barnard Elementary School, said she has called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration several times to try to bring attention to First Student’s practices. Vega said she has not yet heard an update or concrete action items from OSHA.

“It could be anyone’s child that could get sick and could pass [away],” she said. “I took it upon myself to call, because it’s not right, and First Student made it seem like they were following all the proper protocols, and they’re not.”

Board of Education members Darnell Goldson and Tamiko Jackson-McArthur acknowledged at last week’s BOE meeting that a whistleblower brought these issues to light.

Jackson-McArthur told the News that the Board was not made aware of the situation until recently, and said she is still awaiting an update from the superintendent. She expressed concern over the fact that it took a whistleblower’s actions for the Board to become aware of the situation.

“They’re under a watchful eye from the New Haven Health Department, and so I have a lot of confidence in the Health Department to make sure they’re safe,” Jackson-McArthur said. “But I do have problems with the fundamental issue that they weren’t forthcoming with this issue — that they were outed by one of their employees, and that’s how we found out.”

Brock elaborated that the 27 First Student employees who tested positive are in quarantine and working with the city’s Department of Public Health contact tracing efforts. The bus company is also conducting “widespread” testing of its employees at a dedicated drive-thru testing site.

As of Tuesday, First Student has tested 207 employees for COVID-19 in preparation for its planned continued operations, of which 163 have tested negative, two positive, and 42 results to be determined. 

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu