When schools were forced to shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, bus drivers and monitors were among those heavily affected by the closures.
Corey Muirhead, vice president of the Guardian Bus Company, said he had a difficult time laying off drivers and monitors amid the health and economic crisis. Guardian serves school districts in Freeport, Bellmore-Merrick, Oceanside and East Meadow.
“We had to let them go, and they didn’t have health benefits amid a global pandemic,” Muirhead said. “The most nerve-racking thing was dealing with the unknown. We had no idea how long this would last or when they could come back.”
Rosa Somra, a driver in East Meadow, said the layoffs were rough on her and her colleagues, and they were happy to return to work and adapt to the “new normal” when schools reopened in the fall.
Muirhead, a Long Beach native, said he wanted to do right by his employees, so the Guardian Bus Company partnered with Halodine, a company founded by doctors to produce antiseptics that kill Covid-19, to donate 600 oral antiseptic sprays and 600 six-pack nasal swabs to more than 500 local drivers on Dec. 1.
Halodine Co-Founder Dr. Jesse Pelletier said the spray and nasal swabs, which have been registered with the federal Food and Drug Administration but not yet evaluated, provide extra protection for essential workers because its primary ingredient, poviodone-iodine, can kill Covid-19 quickly and can be applied immediately if users believe they have been exposed to the coronavirus.
“Bus drivers and matrons are susceptible to the virus as they’re working in a closed environment and they don’t have the best ventilation,” Pelletier said. “They’re at risk, so they can use the product before and after rides for extra protection.”
Halodine officials added that the product does not cure Covid-19; rather, it is an additional layer of protection to be used with face masks and gloves.
Halodine is hoping to make similar donations to teachers in the SUNY school system.
Muirhead said he was grateful for the donation, as the Covid-19 infection rate is starting to spike in Nassau County again. For the last three weeks, Freeport has seen about 100 new positive cases a week, according to the county’s Department of Health.
Nassau is nearing a 5 percent infection rate, similar to what it was during the height of the pandemic in the spring, and the county is edging closer toward a Yellow Zone designation by the state. Renewed regulations and possible school closures would be imposed with such a designation.
Aaron Champagne, a bus driver from Oceanside, has driven in Bellmore-Merrick for more than seven years. Since schools reopened, he and his colleagues have focused on reinforcing the new rules to keep students and themselves safe. Bus drivers, monitors and students must wear masks at all times, and buses must be disinfected at least twice a day. The buses are also carrying students at half capacity to allow for social distancing.
Although Champagne said he was cautiously optimistic about receiving an extra layer of protection through the Guardian Bus Company and Halodine’s partnership, he was skeptical that anyone would be able to stay Covid-free indefinitely.
“So much time has passed with this going on that it feels like it’s a luck of the draw at this point,” Champagne said. “You do what you can to avoid it and keep others safe, and when you get it, you just got to hope for the best.”
Somra added that while most students in the elementary schools follow their instructions well, some high-schoolers ignore the bus drivers’ instructions to keep their masks on.
“It’s some of the older kids who aren’t taking it seriously,” Somra said. “They think [Covid-19’s] not real.”
If a student repeatedly refuses to wear a mask inside the buses, drivers and monitors can report them to the school district.
Somra and Muirhead agreed that the worst thing that could happen would be for schools to shut down again. Muirhead said that one- and two-day closures because of Covid-19 cases in schools were already difficult to deal with, but district-wide closures for an undetermined amount of time would be devastating to local drivers and monitors.
“Dealing with Covid is a group effort, so please wear your masks,” Muirhead said. “It’s the simplest thing that you can do to help us and the children.”