As the Boston school system prepares its bus fleet for the fall term, two cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in employees who work on the buses has heightened alarm about safety.
Within a two-week span, two maintenance workers at the Readville bus yard were diagnosed with COVID-19, according to Transdev, the private contractor that oversees the city’s three school bus yards.
Transdev learned of the first case on Aug. 28 and “the second case was confirmed on September 11,” the company said in a statement Friday night in response to Globe questions.
“We immediately notified all employees who had come in contact with the two employees, which is a mandatory part of our procedures,” Transdev said. “These isolated cases of COVID-19 will have no impact on our buses being available, properly cleaned and ready for a safe start of school and bus operations.”
The disclosure comes amid growing concern among transportation workers, teachers, and other school staffers about whether the Boston Public Schools has put the appropriate measures in place to prevent COVID-19 transmissions. The issue has been particularly sensitive among school bus drivers, who had 3 active union members and one retiree die from the virus in the spring. And about half of the school bus drivers are over the age of 60, school officials have said, which is considered a higher risk group.
A human resources generalist for Transdev in Boston also died of the coronavirus.
“We want to make sure that we don’t have one more death,” said Andre Francois, president of the Boston school bus drivers union, who said the union has been pressing for increased safety protocols since the spring. “They still don’t care about bus drivers.”
He said members are worried they were exposed to the infected employees or other employees who had direct contact with them, adding they gave the union no information about the cases for days.
Remote-learning classes are slated to begin Monday. The earliest that school buses could begin transporting students is Oct. 1, when the school system plans to begin bringing students back to classrooms in waves, with the last group expected to arrive in mid-November.
In a posting on its website earlier this month, the school bus drivers union criticized Transdev and the Walsh administration for acting too slowly in addressing the first COVID-19 case. They wanted the city to conduct COVID-19 testing on employees at the Readville yard, subject individuals who had contact with the infected employee to a 14-day quarantine, and shut down and disinfect the bus yard.
“This emergency COVID-19 protocol must be in place before drivers return to work,” the union said in a statement on its website Sept. 2.
Transdev said it provided a list of known testing sites in Boston to those who had come in contact with the maintenance employee who tested positive on Aug. 28 and advised them to quarantine for 14 days and monitor for symptoms.
The union is still negotiating pandemic-related safety protocols with Transdev and the city -- such as putting partitions between drivers and riders -- and recently secured a temporary deal that will provide bus drivers with pay for at least the month of September so they don’t need to seek unemployment benefits.
The union also is bracing for potential layoffs, as there might be a need for fewer buses.
The phased-in approach to in-person learning will at least initially require fewer buses and drivers on the road. And many students have opted against returning to classrooms at all, favoring online learning, which could also reduce the need for buses. Although, social distancing practices, which will limit each bench to one student, could ultimately require more buses to be in use.
Transdev defended its response to the COVID-19 cases, saying it notified the three unions representing workers at the Readville yard about them. The company said it did not shut down the facility because it had already been fully sanitized between the time the first infected employee last worked and five days later when that employee reported the positive test result.
Similarly, in the case of the second infected employee, the facility had been sprayed with electrostatically charged mist on three occasions to disinfect it and fully cleaned on four separate days between the employee’s last appearance at the facility and when the company was notified about the positive test result. It then fully sanitized the facility again.
All shared objects and equipment were cleaned as well, according to the company.
“Our cleaning schedule occurs regardless of whether or not there are positive tests,” the company said. “We adhere to our ongoing sanitizing schedule because there can be a few-day delay between when an employee last works and when Transdev is informed of a positive COVID-19 test notification.”
The company also emphasized that all employees are required to wear masks in bus yard facilities and on vehicles and to practice social distancing. Mechanics also have been issued sanitizing misters to be used when they work on buses.
“Once school resumes, all BPS buses will be sanitized every day following rigorous protocols and will receive additional electro-static spray cleaning twice per week,” the company said. “Social distancing also will be maintained on all buses once school resumes, to the best of our ability.”
Pandemic-related upgrades to the Readville facility have fallen behind schedule. The work requires such measures as removing walls in the building to ensure adequate space for social distancing.
Similar work at the two other bus yards in Roxbury and Dorchester is on pace, according to a School Committee presentation Wednesday night.
A Boston school spokesman said on Friday that the delays in facility upgrades were unrelated to the COVID-19 cases and were largely due to aligning the work of contractors and subcontractors. The spokesman deferred all questions about the coronavirus cases to Transdev.
School officials have promised to publicly release incidents of COVID-19 diagnoses on a school-by-school basis each week after classes begin and to randomly test teachers for COVID-19, under an agreement with the Boston Teachers Union.
It’s not clear if the BPS will be providing similar data about its other non-school facilities that employ workers who have direct contact with students, such as the school bus yards and the central offices at the Bolling Building.
“As we prepare for the start of the new school year, the health, safety and well-being of our students, staff and families remains our top priority,” the school system said in a statement, noting that the Boston Public Health Commission Infectious Disease Bureau "will perform all official contact tracing and case investigation for confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 for the City of Boston including those that attend or work within BPS.”
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.