JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Daisy Mejia has driven a school bus for Duval County students with special needs since 1998.
After more than 20 years as a bus driver, Mejia retired in August 2020. She says it’s because of the pandemic.
“There were too many questions and not enough answers,” said Mejia, 50. “As far as like, driving the school bus with the children. Are they going to be wearing masks? Am I going to be safe? I don’t want to bring anything to my grandkids and my family.”
At the time, the Florida Department of Education was requiring schools to keep school buildings physically open and staffed for parents who opted to stick with brick-and-mortar education for their students. Some teachers and staff in Jacksonville were rallying to keep school virtual.
The Duval County Public School district added several COVID-19 protocols to prevent the spread of the virus, but the superintendent of schools told board members over the summer “we already know that we cannot social distance on a school bus.” Adding it would take almost 10 hours to deliver students if the district followed the CDC guidance to put one student for every other seat.
“It was just this uncertainty, you know?” said Mejia. “I just prayed, and I made the decision not to come back. It was hard after so many years. It was the hardest decision ever.”
After nearly seven months of school in session, Gov. Ron Desantis announced this week classroom teachers, and law enforcement 50 and older would be a part of the priority group eligible for vaccines at the four new federal vaccine sites opening in Florida in March.
One of the sites will open in Jacksonville at the Gateway Mall. But, drivers and monitors who operate school buses as more students have gone back to brick and mortar education are wondering why they’re being excluded.
Rebecca Cardona is the business manager for Local 512, a union representing bus drivers for Duval County Public Schools. Cardona says the governor should allow school bus drivers and monitors to also be vaccinated at federal sites.
“The drivers and monitors for a large portion of students, they are the first face-to-face contact and the last face-to-face contact for a child for their educational day,” said Cardona. “And they have just as much risk of exposure as a teacher in the classroom, if not more, because of the closed space.”
During a press conference in Jacksonville on Thursday, Desantis did not give a definitive answer but said his team would consider adding school support staff and bus drivers to the group who is eligible for shots at federal vaccine sites.
“That would be something we would be open to, for sure. I mean, at the end of the day, figure out those folks that have the contact, classroom teachers. Although the infection rates with them have been very low and I think very positive, I think it’s good for confidence and it would be appreciated, so I believe some of those are important. So, yeah we would definitely look at that,” DeSantis said.
Data on school bus drivers infected with COVID-19 is sparse.
Some school districts, like Duval County, use third-party contractors who supply school bus drivers. Student Transportation of America, or STA, employs most school bus drivers for Duval County schools. STA did not respond to an email from News4Jax on Thursday asking how many of its drivers tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year.
The Local Union 512 says school bus carriers in Jacksonville also have not yet responded to a Jan. 4 records request for a count of employees who tested positive for the virus or had to quarantine because of exposure. Cardona says her union has fielded “numerous” calls from school bus drivers and monitors who reported testing positive for COVID-19.
In Clay County, at least one school bus driver passed away from complications of COVID-19. The family of 66-year-old Gail Brusseau said she contracted the virus at the start of the school year. She was planning to retire mid-school year, according to her husband.
The Florida Department of Health school report sporadically lists infected transportation employees in its COVID-19 school report. One case is listed as “Miami-Dade Public Schools – Bus Driver.” Another example is a case listed as “The Department of Transportation,” but the county is listed as “unknown.”
Mejia says she does not regret her decision to not return to school bus drivers but worries for her former colleagues.
“It’s hard some days for the drivers. Especially when you hear that so many drivers tested positive,” said Mejia. “There’s so many children that, you know, don’t wear a mask, or you know, there’s not consequences to them not even wearing a mask. So, they’re constantly worried about themselves.”