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'I don't trust my kids on those buses': SPS educator, parent voice concerns about Durham amid COVID-19 outbreak

"I just don't understand why Durham can't maintain their safety protocols," the staff member said.

SPOKANE, Wash. — The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries confirmed Wednesday that a second investigation is taking place into Durham Bus Services. 

The first investigation in Durham was a direct result of media coverage of the death of bus attendant Dave Simpson. L&I said the second is related to employee complaints of COVID-19 safety issues. 

The bus company had one employee COVID-19 death, 31 positive cases, and more than 60 team members quarantined all in under one month, according to the Spokane Regional Health District.

In emails obtained by KREM 2 through a records request, Spokane Public School staff members and parents brought concerns up to SPS administration in early February. 

After months of trying to get ahold of SPS and Durham, Amelia Potter reached her breaking point.

"I have probably called Durham at least 100 times," Potter said. "When you call the District 81 office, most things don't really happen."

She was on a mission — calling and emailing each organization almost every day.  

"It takes weeks for someone to get back," she added. "Trying to go through the school district is just a nightmare."

When she would hear back, she said she received factually incorrect responses. In an email from Durham, an employee had to send multiple apologies due to sending the wrong pick-up and drop-off time for her 7-year-old son Leium. 

Potter said Durham's dispatch started to recognize her voice from how often she called surrounding issues with her son. Leium goes to Brown Elementary and has disabilities, meaning he rides the bus with other children with special needs.

KREM 2 reached out to Durham, but Spokesperson Ed Flavin said "it would not be appropriate to comment further as [L&I's] investigations continue."

However, Flavin said they have made a management change at the facility, but would not elaborate on what that means.

Credit: Amaelia Potter
Leium, 7, was exposed to COVID-19 while on his Durham school bus

In one of the only phone conversations she has had with the school, she found out Leium was on a bus where he was exposed to COVID-19.

"I get a phone call 11 days after Leium has been exposed from the school district," she said. "So that means 11 days he's been going to school, 11 days I've been going to work."

Potter works in healthcare, so she said she has already been stressed about working during the pandemic. 

"Somebody missed something, or the tracing took way too long," she said.

Public records show that SPS was pressing Durham for the information they needed to contact trace, but the bus company could not produce seating charts.

A SPS educator reached out to KREM 2's Morgan Trau to share his concerns, as he works with students with disabilities and is outside to welcome the kids to school. KREM 2 is keeping his identity private due to his worries of backlash he may receive from speaking out.

"It's really surprising that the bus is jam packed full of elementary students," the staff member said. "Two to a seat all the way back."

He said due to being short staffed with drivers, Durham drops off high schoolers at the elementary school and immediately picks up the younger students to drive home. He said he has never seen anyone sanitize between the two age groups. 

He added that he sees drivers not wearing masks, and even alleged that a bus driver told him he had COVID, but was back to work days later.

"He had COVID and he wasn't out for a whole lot of time, like, maybe four or five days," he added. "I just don't understand why Durham can't maintain their safety protocols and stuff. This is really rough, it's a tough time."

KREM 2 previously reported that 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."

"Why am I doing all my safety protocols in the school, like, making sure everything's clean every day?" he asked. "Then you just hand them off to another company and then it's just like they just abandon all protocols and it's like, what the heck?"

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. 

"I don't trust my kids on those buses," he said about his students. 

Potter said she doesn't blame SPS for Durham's actions and lack of transparency, but she still doesn't trust her son on the bus. 

"It was very fishy and suspicious," Potter said about Durham not communicating with SPS. "The whole thing did not make a lot of sense."

Sandra Jarrard emailed a statement Thursday evening: 

There have been no incidents of COVID-19 transmission on buses this school year. As with other aspects of public health during the pandemic, Spokane Public Schools encourages staff, students, and families to report any perceived non-compliance to health and safety protocols. District staff work to substantiate reported concerns, as we remain committed to ensuring the transmission of COVID-19 in public school settings remain extremely rare.  As with all of our partners, we will continue to communicate with Durham Bus Services to regarding adherence to all health and safety protocols. The Durham national office has also conducted a review of their safety protocols and practices and has reinforced communication and training. Durham staff are providing daily updates to district staff.  Additional management staff has also been assigned by Durham to the Spokane office.