Records: Spokane Public Schools raised numerous COVID concerns about Durham bus drivers

Mar. 18—Multiple Spokane Public Schools officials raised concerns that the company responsible for transporting students failed to follow pandemic safety protocols in several key areas, potentially exposing students to coronavirus as drivers and other employees became ill, according to emails from school officials.

Those failures also may have led to unnecessary quarantines of students. The problems came to light after multiple Durham School Services drivers and other employees tested positive for COVID-19, and the district learned of those positive tests not from Durham — but after test results had been received by the Spokane Regional Health District.

According to emails obtained by The Spokesman-Review through a public records request, school employees reported seeing multiple Durham drivers and attendants not properly wearing masks. Some school officials also reported that buses appeared to be overcrowded or lacked ventilation.

Under the district's COVID-19 bus rules, all bus workers and riders are required to wear masks. And bus windows must be open to circulate the air more frequently. Also, no more than two students per seat are allowed.

The measures, which also include regular cleaning, social distancing protocols, mask requirements and health attestations, are part of the district's strategy to maximize safety as more students return to in-person learning.

Seating charts, which are required by both Durham and the district, are also part of that strategy.

But in the weeks before a COVID-19 outbreak among 36 Durham employees, the local office did not respond to the school district's repeated requests for bus seating charts that would have eased the work of contact tracers and avoided needless quarantines of students, according to district emails.

Those concerns have led to an ongoing investigation by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries into Durham's actions before and after the outbreak announced on Feb. 23.

During the past month, 57 local Durham employees have been quarantined and one bus attendant died.

Emails between Durham and Spokane Public Schools indicate that district nurses were hampered in contact-tracing efforts in the crucial days of early February, and that slow response from Durham may have resulted in unnecessary quarantines of elementary school students.

On Feb. 11, the Spokane Regional Health District reported to the school district that a Durham bus driver and a pair of attendants on two different routes had tested positive for coronavirus, shortly after having worked on buses. Emails released by the district did not specify which schools were affected.

As the potential exposure occurred during the first week of February, time was critical. A school district registered nurse, Lorie Stucke, immediately contacted Durham with a request for seating charts on the two buses. Stucke is a former Spokesman-Review reporter and is married to Assistant Managing Editor John Stucke.

After two days and several non-replies, the nurse sent an email to Superintendent Adam Swinyard, Health Services Director Becky Doughty and transportation director Salliejo Evers, urging immediate action with Durham.

"We're now 7 days past that potential close contact for our students, which could affect their families, their classrooms and our staff," Stucke wrote.

"This all needs to happen today," the email continued. "I'm fearful that without this information we could be calling the wrong families, creating unnecessary concern on one hand while leaving our SPS community open to the spread of coronavirus on the other.

"I haven't been able to move ahead with anything since I don't know who was on the bus on those days. I also needed some information clarified," Stucke continued.

Two days later, the Durham officials told the nurse that "if I didn't receive (the seating charts) that is because the bus drivers did not turn them in."

A week later, on Feb. 23, Durham announced the COVID-19 outbreak among drivers and other personnel.

Ed Flavin, a national spokesman for Durham, said Wednesday that the company enforces measures that include "daily employee screening, social distancing, mask protocols, and disinfecting protocols."

"Our drivers wear masks, and our bus attendants wear both a mask and a face shield," Flavin added. "We have implemented seating charts. These seating charts are updated as needed."

On Wednesday, the district expressed confidence in current safety measures, emphasizing that "no COVID-19 transmissions have occurred on school buses this year," according to a statement from Sandra Jarrard, director of communications.

"In the event contact tracers have questions or are not able to immediately acquire specific details about potential exposures, all possible students and staff in the environment are quarantined. This ensures that contact tracing is effective but may result in a higher number of individuals that are quarantined.

"Whenever there has been an issue with acquiring information from Durham, district leadership has followed up with their supervisors and aggressive quarantining has been conducted," Jarrard said.

Emails also indicate that alarms were raised long before that by parents, principals and school district officials.

As more elementary students returned for in-person learning, some parents had complained that buses lacked ventilation.

That prompted another email, on Feb., 4, from Evers to Rhonda McLellan, manager of Durham's office in Spokane. It read in part: "Drivers must have the windows down, noticeable enough that there is no question about it. I saw one bus today and the windows were probably down just one click — it needs to be very noticeable, please."

Even before the outbreak, Durham was straining to field enough drivers.

On March 18, Matthew Henshaw, principal at Roosevelt Elementary on the South Hill, emailed Michael Warnecke, a district transportation supervisor, with a complaint that afternoon buses were overcrowded.

"I really want to avoid another bus quarantine if at all possible," wrote Henshaw, who wanted some students placed on other buses to ensure "that students are able to ride safely and follow COVID protocol for riding the bus."

One day later, Evers felt compelled to write another email to McLellan, demanding that Durham "remind drivers and monitors that masks must be worn at all times while on the bus."

The email also reiterated the requirement to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

Echoing the nurse's concerns, Evers asked that "current seating charts be maintained weekly."

However, the district, through Jarrard, stated on Tuesday that it has "investigated any reports in the last two months of overcrowded buses and has not been able to substantiate any situations where buses were beyond the capacity established for COVID-19 safety protocols."

Complaints continued after the announcement on Feb. 23, accompanied by reassurances from Durham national headquarters that safety protocols were being followed.

One day later, Dave Crump, principal at MAP Middle School, wrote to Warnecke after receiving feedback from staff and students.

According to their observations, Crump wrote, "the majority of the bus drivers are not wearing their masks, or have them pulled down under their chin when they drop off or pick up students."

Also, Crump reported that several drivers were giving treats or candy to students.

"This is a very kind act, however, we have a lot of students with diabetes, allergies and other COVID concerns," Crump wrote.