SPOKANE, Wash. — Emails obtained by KREM through a records request are revealing new details about a COVID-19 outbreak among Durham Bus Services employees, including a claim that three staff members worked while infectious.
Spokane Public Schools (SPS) partners with Durham to provide school bus services for its students. KREM first reported the outbreak among Durham staff members on Feb. 23. Since then, Spokane Regional Health has identified 30 employees who tested positive for coronavirus and 61 who were quarantined.
Dave Simpson, a 62-year-old bus attendant for Durham, was diagnosed with the virus on Feb. 22 and died five days later. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has launched a formal investigation into the outbreak.
Lorie Stucke, a nurse who works for SPS, wrote in an email to district leaders on Feb. 13, 2021 that an employee with the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) said Durham General Manager Rhonda McLellan reported to the agency that a bus driver and attendant on one special education route had tested positive for coronavirus. According to the email, both the bus driver and attendant worked while infectious. It could be possible they didn't know they were infected. SHRD said generally they do see people at work while infectious because they aren't showing symptoms.
An attendant on a second special education bus tested positive for coronavirus and "was working one day when she could have exposed the children on a different special education bus," the email reads.
Stucke also wrote in the email that she requested information from Durham about bus seating charts but did not receive them.
"Honestly, by now I’m so tied in knots that I can’t move forward. We’re now 7 days past that potential close contact for our students, which could affect their families, their classrooms and our staff," she wrote.
Stucke also shared other pertinent information that she was waiting to receive, including which of Durham's bus drivers and attendants had tested positive for COVID-19, the date they first had symptoms, the dates they tested positive and the dates they worked with students while infectious.
"This all needs to happen today. 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," Stucke wrote on Feb. 13.
Emails address concerns of mask, COVID-19 safety violations
The emails obtained by KREM also outline other concerns about Durham bus drivers' behavior leading up to the outbreak.
In an email sent on Friday, Feb. 19, SPS Security Director Salliejo Evers sent an email to McLellan asking her to "remind drivers and monitors that masks must be worn at all times while on the bus." She also mentioned the importance of leaving windows down "two clicks" for air circulation, current seating charts that are maintained weekly and the frequent cleaning of buses multiple times throughout the day.
Evers wrote in another email sent to McLellan on Feb. 19 that SPS Superintendent Adam Swinyard felt "much better knowing that there is not an outbreak at Durham."
Three days later, McLellan wrote in an email that SRHD declared an outbreak within Durham.
"The school district had been fielding calls and are implying management has not been inforcing [sic] protocols and drivers have been hanging out together etc," she wrote in part.
District leaders and SPS families also raised concerns in February about bus drivers not wearing masks or refusing to follow other COVID-19 safety protocols.
In an email sent on Sunday, Feb. 21 to Durham, SPS wrote that the district would "make use of the $200 'poor customer service' fine for violation of COVID safety protocols, lack of drivers, mask violations, delayed or consolidated routes, late buses, etc." KREM has tried to connect with SPS for more information on this fine but has not received a response.
"Violations have already occurred that can no longer be overlooked," the email reads in part.
Another employee of SPS wrote in an email on Wednesday, Feb. 24 that he received feedback from students and staff at Map, which may be referring to Map Middle School in Spokane. It indicated that "the majority of bus drivers are not wearing their masks, or have them pulled down under their chin when the [sic] drop off or pick up students." The email also mentions that several bus drivers and attendants had given treats, candy and toys to students.
SPS, SRHD and Durham release statements
Spokane Public Schools issued the following statement to KREM 2 on Thursday evening:
One of SPS’s main priorities is the health and safety of all students. The information provided through the public records request reveals that SPS staff is committed to ensuring that all health and safety protocols are followed.
We would like to let the SPS community know that there have been no incidents of transmission on school buses this school year. Durham Transportation has historically operated with seating charts for students. This has become particularly valuable during the pandemic in order to support contract tracing. If seating chart information is incomplete or not readily available, all potential individuals on the bus are quarantined out of an abundance of caution.
The Durham national office also conducted a review of their safety protocols and practices and has reinforced communication and training. Durham Bus Company has also brought additional management staff to the Spokane office and provides daily updates to district staff. Spokane Public Schools is committed to working with all our partners to support staff, students, and families. SPS will continue to work with Durham Bus Services to ensure adherence to all health and safety protocols.
Durham Spokesperson Edward Flavin gave KREM 2 the following statement Thursday evening:
Our employees are subject to daily employee screening, social distancing, mask protocols, and disinfecting protocols. Windows are open on each vehicle to maximize air exchange, and each student is required to wear a mask. Our drivers wear masks, and our bus attendants wear both a mask and a face shield. There are processes in place to ensure Covid safety protocols are in place. Passengers are limited to approximately 60% capacity on each vehicle.
For the last several weeks, our leaders from across our organization have been working in tangent with our local management team to ensure that our safety protocols are followed. If we learn of any of our employees who have not or are not following the protocols that are in place, they will be disciplined and may be terminated due to their actions.
SRHD issued the following statement to KREM 2 on Thursday evening:
The investigation of this outbreak is ongoing. We have been actively working with Durham since the beginning of the outbreak, and they have shown commitment to working with us and providing the information that we need.