BERKLEY — Last Saturday’s storm buried the region in up to two feet of snow, leaving a layer of white in all directions. The cleanup on Sunday, and into Monday, was challenging, for sure, but somewhat forgiving thanks to a light, dry, powdery brand of snow.
All in all, not the worst result in the aftermath of what equaled a record single-day snowfall in Boston.
But a storm of a different sort greeted some local students on Monday morning, as some unexpected drifts and piles leftover from the cleanup found their way into a number of Berkley school buses out on the morning route.
Angela Ricardo, a parent of two Berkley students, received a series of concerning photos that morning from her daughter en route to Berkley Middle School, along with reports of students huddled together in seats in an attempt to stay warm with single-digit temperatures outside.
The snow was a new twist, but the cold was not, and it didn’t take long to find the culprit: open windows and roof hatches in step with COVID-19 safety and health protocols from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
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Angela Ricardo took her concerns to school administrators, including Berkley Superintendent of Schools Melissa Ryan and Berkley Middle School Principal Kimberly Hebert, who were concerned and ready to act, but were clear the district’s bus drivers are expected to enforce DESE policy.
The superintendent’s office also said they would contact the town’s bus contractor, H&L Bloom, and DESE for a potential solution.
“The superintendent said their hands were tied with the policy DESE has put in place,” Ricardo said.
Storm-like conditions on bus ‘not a new issue’
Ricardo said her daughter described storm-like conditions on the bus, with freezing temperatures and snow drifting in through the open windows and hatches, making for a cold, uncomfortable ride.
And when Ricardo shared the photos on a public Facebook post it became apparent it was not an isolated incident, with reports of similar scenes on buses in other school districts around the state. DESE did not respond to a request for comment regarding reports of similar incidents in other districts.
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Ricardo also spoke with a representative from DESE later that day.
“They said the policy was created two years ago, and that it has not been readdressed, despite any clear evidence that it is effective or useful or a good idea,” she said.
The snow was a new, striking example, but Ricardo says the issue of open windows in foul weather is not.
And as an emergency department nurse, she has concerns about the increased airflow from the open windows and hatches spreading germs around the bus compartment, as opposed to limiting spread and exposure, and students sitting two and three in a seat to keep warm, which flies against social distancing recommendations.
“I wanted to make clear to the superintendent that this is not a new issue. I’ve been complaining about this all along. Whether it’s raining or ridiculously cold, the windows are open, and kids are showing up to school wet and cold and uncomfortable. This is a messy policy at best and needs to be reconsidered,” Ricardo said.
“I mean, my middle schooler is huddled three in a seat, with a blanket, which to me seems to negate any social distancing that’s supposed to be happening. The bus drivers are decked out in their winter gear, with blankets on their laps, and you have to ask is that safe? I actually bought my daughter a heated jacket.”
Superintendent and bus company ‘responsive’ to concerns
Superintendent Melissa Ryan said, after fielding reports and investigating, the source of the snow was quickly identified.
As the bus fleet was set in motion Monday morning, snow still clinging and frozen to outside surfaces, even after cleanup and snow clearing, began blowing in through the open windows and hatches.
“It was a very unfortunate incident, but our transportation company was very responsive and open to conversations about how to keep something like this from happening again and to keep our students safe and warm on our buses,” Ryan told the Taunton Daily Gazette on Wednesday.
“And we will have continuing conversations with the bus company to make adjustments and to respond to the needs of our students and families as best we can.”
State rules mandate cracked windows ‘when feasible’
Ryan explained according to the DESE policy bus windows are to be kept “cracked one to two inches,” what she described as “one click of a school bus window,” to help with airflow.
But within the language of the policy there is some wiggle room for appropriate departure from the rule. Both Ryan and Ricardo confirmed with DESE bus windows and hatches are to be open “when feasible,” with extreme weather as one such accepted scenario.
“Schools are strongly encouraged to keep bus windows open whenever feasible to increase ventilation on buses. DESE encourages districts to communicate with their school community that increasing outside air will affect the temperatures on buses. Districts should encourage families and caregivers to send their students to school with plenty of warm layers in fall and winter, as bus temperatures could fluctuate throughout the day.”
Ryan added: “I think ‘feasible’ is purposely subjective and intended to mean we can use our best judgment in cases like this. The weather should not be in the bus.”
“We have fantastic bus drivers who care about our kids. It was an unfortunate way to come back to school on Monday, and we will do our best and work with the bus company to see that is does not happen again.”
After conversations with H&L Bloom, Ryan said the company would advise its drivers that students, at their discretion, would be allowed to close problem windows in cases of extreme cold and precipitation.
Will DESE change the rules?
Ryan and Ricardo agreed it was a satisfactory solution for the students, district and bus company in terms of avoiding a repeat of the isolated snow incident and previous experiences with cold and rain.
But Ricardo would like to see DESE revisit and update the policy soon.
“It was a great compromise, and hopefully, that will take care of it,” she said. “I would like to see DESE address the policy, though. It just doesn’t seem to be clear at all and may be time to update the policy.”