In early 2020, as the novel coronavirus reared its spiky head, Washington state was among the first in the nation to shut down schools as a precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Friday marked the grim two-year reminder that the first deadly case in the U.S. was diagnosed in a man from Snohomish County.
On the eve of this anniversary, Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of schools, and Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, the state’s chief science officer, gave a virtual community update on the recommended vaccination practices and health protocols, and talked about pandemic trends in Washington schools.
They also urged parents to consider getting their children vaccinated. According to state health data, only 23% of Washington children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated. Reykdal said that just over half of the state’s middle schoolers are vaccinated, and 65% of high schoolers have received the vaccine.
Still, in stark contrast to the early months of community lockdowns, a combination of vaccinations and practices like testing, face masking, distancing, hand hygiene and ventilation have helped schools reopen and stay open. “Ninety-six percent of our students who wanted in-person learning are in an in-person learning environment, even with omicron right now,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal also said that there appears to be a low incidence rate of coronavirus spreading in schools. A total of 349 COVID‐19 outbreaks in K‐12 were reported to the state health department between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30. A total of 3,102 COVID-19 cases were associated with outbreaks in these schools during this time.
The superintendent said the bigger challenge with keeping schools open at the moment is a shortage of staffing, from bus drivers to paraeducators to classroom teachers. Last week, several schools in the Seattle district moved to remote learning, in part because of staffing shortages.
“The temporary closures that we’re seeing around the state — more of them flipping to remote learning on a temporary basis — is because they can’t staff the schools safely,” said Reykdal. “Folks should expect to see this happen for a couple more weeks, there are little waves [of closures]. We’ve already had districts that have had to go remote for three to five days, and they’re back now.”
There are not enough substitutes on districts’ rosters to help fill in, and the reasons are not all directly linked to coronavirus; some positions have been historically hard to fill.
When panel moderator Onora Lien, executive director of the Northwest Healthcare Response Network, asked about pediatric cases and hospitalizations this week, Kwan-Gett said case rates “are higher now than they’ve ever been,” and attributed this to the highly infectious omicron variant.
He said that overall positive case rates are likely underreported because some people don’t get tested, and those who test with at-home kits don’t tend to report their results to local public-health officials. This gap could continue to widen as the state and federal governments distribute millions of at-home test kits to residents.
Reykdal urged school staff and families of students who test positive for COVID-19 at home to notify their respective schools so they can initiate contact tracing. The superintendent said that a close contact does not necessarily mean a student or staff member will automatically be sent home.
Students at participating schools can become a part of the state’s “test to stay” program, which allows kids to continue to take part in class with close monitoring and the agreement to limit out-of-class activities.
The bulk of Thursday’s program focused on the safety, efficacy, individual and community benefits of getting coronavirus vaccines and boosters. But a look at the low vaccine numbers, particularly in elementary school-age kids, suggests that families aren’t fully buying the messaging.
The superintendent said the decision about whether to mandate coronavirus vaccines and boosters is in the hands of public-health officials, and that such a decision likely won’t be made this school year.
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