LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Fayette County Public Schools spokesperson Lisa Deffendall said there are only two ways the school district learns its employees have tested positive for COVID-19. It comes down to either the Lexington-Fayette Health Department notifying the district about concerns for public health or employees making FCPS aware of their test results.
“Just because someone works for the Fayette County Public Schools does not guarantee the district is aware of a diagnosis, and no one gives FCPS a running total of employees who test positive for the virus,” Deffendall said in a statement.
FCPS is receiving criticism from some transportation employees who said the school district put them in a position to be exposed to the virus and didn’t enforce health guidelines described by Gov. Andy Beshear and the health department.
After Gov. Beshear ordered schools to close in-class learning in March, FCPS announced an initiative where meals would be prepared and made available to students at bus stops.
Transportation employees received two letters on March 13 explaining the school district’s expectations.
“You have the option to work next week or not,” read the second memorandum in bold. “By not choosing to work, any missed time will be added to the end of your work calendar. If you do not work the time added to the end of your work calendar, your pay will be negatively affected at that time. You cannot use leave during the next two weeks.”
“It was not volunteered. You had to do it,” Janice Perkins, who worked as an FCPS bus monitor for 16 years, said.
Perkins said many bus drivers and monitors felt they didn’t have a choice in whether they wanted to work or stay home and social distance because it would negatively impact them if they chose not to work.
“We were very upset,” said Perkins. “My health means more to me than that.”
One bus monitor at the bus garage on Miles Point Way described the first week of the initiative as “terrifying.” They said employees were crowded together while they waited to receive their assignments and told to wait in their cars when they complained.
“We were in there like sardines in a can,” said Perkins.
“There was no space for anybody anywhere,” said another bus monitor.
FCPS described its efforts to enforce social distancing in a statement: “We implemented several measures to encourage good hygiene and social distancing, including making additional hand sanitizer and gloves available, switching to paper time sheets to keep employees from touching time clocks, and repeatedly asking employees not to congregate in the common areas of the bus garage. Those reporting to work early or waiting between bus runs were directed to move to their cars or sit apart on school buses.”
Perkins, who turned in a doctor’s note and left the meal-delivery program after two days, said these measures weren’t taken immediately. She said those changes were made after she’d already left.
“I feel like they did not protect us like they should have,” she said.
The school district cancelled the meal-delivery program on March 25 after a team member directly involved with the meal service tested positive for COVID-19, according to Deffendall.
Deffendall said FCPS is aware of 27 staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sunday. Nineteen of those cases involve employees from the department of transportation.
Eugenia Weathers passed away Saturday after testing positive for COVID-19. She was a relief driver for FCPS and is the first FCPS employee to pass away from complications with the virus.
“We are grieved by the loss of Eugenia Weathers, who has been a member of our transportation team for 17 years. Eugenia was one of our relief drivers, so she by the nature of her work, she was very flexible and approached every situation with a positive attitude. She had a great disposition and personality, a wonderful sense of humor, and the rare ability to find joy in everyday life,” Fayette County Public Schools Director of Transportation Marcus Dobbs said.
One bus monitor told LEX 18 they might have decided not to participate in the meal-delivery program if they knew their pay wouldn’t be impacted by their decision to not work.
“I mean, bottom line is, I need my paycheck just like the next person. But my paycheck will do me no good if I'm dead,” they said.
FCPS transportation employees are also raising concerns the school district failed to thoroughly explain the gravity of the circumstances to employees. Multiple people said they didn’t hear from the school district that the number of employees testing positive was increasing over time or that many of them might have been exposed to a COVID-19 carrier.
“I just think that they should have taken the high road and better to have said something than not to have said anything. So better to have alarmed everybody and made everybody aware, and maybe even scared a couple of people because you don't know whose life that might have saved,” said one employee.
“Almost a thousand people in the state of Kentucky have tested positive for COVID-19 and unless there was an overriding public health reason or an individual chose to share their diagnosis, the general public doesn’t know where most of them work,” Fayette County Board of Education chairwoman Stephanie Spires said. “I think Fayette County Public Schools has gone above and beyond to not only help the health department with notifying individual employees who may have had close contact with those who have tested positive, but also inform other staff members, families and the community at large as appropriate.”
Spires added: “FCPS is a learning organization with a commitment to continuous improvement. We are in a constant cycle of reflection and revision and will certainly examine all facets of our response to this unprecedented challenge and continue to refine and improve our work. As more information becomes available from medical experts, every entity including state and local government is making adjustments. Employers are operating with the best available information at that time because this is a fluid and evolving situation. There are things each of us are doing today, precautions we are now taking that we didn’t know to take before. A month ago, experts told the general public not to wear masks. Today that advice has changed. That’s the nature of a pandemic.”