Bedbugs, the parasitic insects whose infestation levels have reached near epidemic proportions in New York City, were discovered in schools at an unprecedented rate this year, according to totals released by the city Department of Education.

There were 3,590 confirmed cases of bedbugs found in schools this year, a rate that more than tripled the 2009-2010 totals. The DOE did not release which schools were treated for bedbugs.

The city is battling back without the help of specialized exterminators. A troubled no-bid private contract with a bedbug pest control company was terminated in November, leaving just over a dozen employees in the DOE pest control unit to fight the growing case load.

The increase is significant, but not a complete surprise. The upsurge actually began during the 2009-2010 school year. In February, I reported that through just five months of the 2010-2011 school year, there were already 1,700 confirmed cases, far surpassing the previous year’s total of 1,019.

A DOE spokeswoman said most of the confirmed cases weren’t large infestations, but isolated incidents where one or two bedbugs were found on a student who brought it to school from an infested home.

“Every time we find a single bedbug, we are required to report it,” said the spokeswoman, Marge Feinberg.

School buildings aren’t ideal for large infestations because bedbugs prefer to burrow in heavy fabrics – mattresses, box springs and couches –  and feed in the nighttime. But as infestations have turned up in other public spaces where people gather – theaters, retail clothing stores and office buildings – the school system has become another transfer point for their spread.

The big spike doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual rate at which bedbugs are coming into schools. It could also represent heightened awareness by teachers and staff about what to look for.

In response to the rise of bedbugs last year, the DOE issued new bedbug guides to instruct school staff on how to handle them when they are found on a student. In March, the DOE made it easier to report bedbugs.

But the Bloomberg administration, which has increasingly relied on contractors for pest control needs, has lagged on finding ways to effectively eradicate the problem.

The DOE currently pays three private extermination companies – Bluesway Pest Control, Verrazano Exterminating and USA Exterminating – to treat non-bedbug pests, such as cockroaches, termites and bees.

But no bedbug contract is in place right now, Feinberg said. The last contract, which was awarded for $99,999 (any city contract worth less than $100,000 does not require competitive bidding) to a company called Joe’s Pest Control, was terminated after exterminators used illegal pesticides in an infested school.

Feinberg said the DOE released a request for pest control services for bedbugs and hoped to have contracts soon.