HFM BOCES officials explain Johnstown, Gloversville busing shut down

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JOHNSTOWN — Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES officials confirmed that 16 transportation staff members were placed in quarantine, including three who tested positive for COVID-19, effectively crippling the system’s ability to provide busing for secondary students in the Gloversville Enlarged School District and the Greater Johnstown School District for an eight-day stretch.

HFM BOCES Superintendent David Ziskin and Assistant Superintendent for Operations and District Services Aaron Bochniak, answered questions in the form of a written email for this story, providing more details about the secondary school busing shut down.

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“The HFM BOCES Transportation department learned on Sunday that three individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend,” Bochniak said. “As a result of the three positive tests, contact tracing was conducted and nine additional individuals were required to quarantine. Also over the weekend, two other individuals had exposures to family members that had tested positive and were also placed into quarantine. This was in addition to two individuals that were already quarantining due to a prior positive case.”

Bochniak said the loss of 16 staff members to quarantines left HFM BOCES with 13 remaining bus drivers, in part because the service was already short three full-time driver jobs it has been unable to fill and was down “countless substitutes.”

“[The 16 quarantines have] impacted school bus drivers, aides and mechanics — all of which are essential for students getting to school,” Bochniak said. “To exacerbate matters, the HFM BOCES Regional Transportation Service is experiencing the same bus driver and bus staff shortage affecting schools across the state and the country. The driver shortage is made worse when quarantines are required of transportation staff. We know this also causes extreme disruptions to instruction and routines for students, their families and school staff. The safety and welfare of our school communities is our top priority, and we must follow and adhere to the CDC and DOH guidance to keep them safe.”

On Sunday, GESD Superintendent David Halloran and GJSD Superintendent William Crankshaw together decided to prioritize using the remaining 13 bus drivers to provide bus route service to the two district’s elementary schools. Bochniak said it wasn’t easy to change bus operations, but HFM BOCES did the best it could.

“Many routes had to be split up and added to other existing routes,” he said. “These types of changes also cause delays to service because drivers are not immediately familiar with all of the pick-up/drop-off locations and students and families are also not familiar with the driver. The GJSD has been attempting to help HFM BOCES recruit more full time and substitute bus drivers to take a six-week training course to refresh the available licensed bus drivers, but HFM BOCES officials admit it’s been slow going.

“In the era of COVID and quarantines, the transportation service also needs to have a large source of substitute drivers, which is currently depleted,” Bochniak said.

Another possible hurdle to local bus driver recruitment may be Fulton County’s worst in the Mohawk Valley Region rate of vaccination at 48.6%, 26,035 people with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Fulton County also ranks in the bottom five of all 62 New York state counties, well behind neighboring Montgomery County (61.8%, 30,568 people with at least one dose) and Saratoga County (70.7%, 162,680 people with at least one dose).

Ziskin said all HFM BOCES staff who have not been vaccinated will be required to submit to weekly testing soon.

“After consulting with state and county health officials, we established a start date of Oct. 12 to begin weekly testing of unvaccinated individuals,” Ziskin said. “We are currently in the process of collecting proof of vaccination from staff to be exempt from this requirement.”

Many individuals reacting to the story of the secondary bus service shut down on the Leader-Herald’s Facebook page have pointed to their frustration at rising local school taxes amid an abrupt reduction of services. Ziskin provided this explanation for the cost of the transportation system to the two districts.

“The answer to this question requires an understanding of how BOCES cooperative services, transportation aid and BOCES aid work,” Ziskin said. “Districts pay based upon their use. There is not a profit. Because we are a cooperative, the costs are shared amongst the districts that subscribe to a given service or program. In the case of regional transportation, each district receives state transportation aid connected to their expenditures, as is the case for all other districts. BOCES programs and services that are not supported by other sources of state aid are eligible for BOCES Aid.”

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