As students and staff return from spring break next week, Seattle-area schools are bracing for possible spikes in COVID-19 cases.
They’re giving out rapid tests and encouraging masking — an effort to avoid a repeat of sharp increases in cases after school communities return from a break.
But will that be enough?
“We expect there will be a bump (in cases) after spring break, and this can be associated with hanging out with friends and family as well as the likely increase with the new omicron variant (BA.2),” said Dr. Beth Ebel, vice president of the Washington Chapter American Academy of Pediatrics board.
When Seattle Public Schools students returned from winter break in January, the district postponed the start of classes by one day to give students and staff time to test for the virus. Still, cases at schools surged, resulting in a return to remote learning, canceled classes, and a large number of teacher and student absences.
Some teachers were forced to have two lesson plans: one for their students in class and one for their students in quarantine. Educators said it wasn’t sustainable or equitable, and a shortage of substitute teachers plagued Seattle and districts nationwide.
This time around, Seattle is prepared. Before spring break began, Seattle Schools handed out two rapid tests for all students and staff to take home and use before returning Monday.
Everett Public Schools sent 14,000 test kits home before spring break: Students went home with two each and staff with five. Highline Public Schools sent out 18,000 test kits and expanded testing options at school.
“The approach is helpful to identify students and staff who are contagious so they can be removed from schools,” said Dr. Danielle Zerr, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s hospital and professor of pediatric infectious diseases. But there are some limitations.
“It is important to remember that the test only tells you about your status at the time you take your test,” she said in an email. “A person could test negative on one day and then become positive the next day.”
Zerr recommends students and staff take the rapid test Monday morning before returning to school.
The Edmonds School District considered sending tests home with students, but decided against it because “the packaging has not allowed for us to do that,” said Dana Geaslen, Edmonds Assistant Superintendent.
The problem, she explained, is that the tests the district received came in bulk.
“There’s a package of, let’s say 25 of them, but the solution that you need to make the test work is one bottle for all 25,” Geaslen said.
Instead, she said, the district offers rapid testing on-site as a precaution in case of exposure, or in response to someone presenting symptoms. Auburn Public Schools shares a similar approach, but encourages families to avoid sending students with COVID symptoms to school just to get tested.
In the next week or two, Ebel said, she expects a larger proportion of cases of the omicron subvariant BA.2, which has been replacing the original version of the coronavirus variant. The new subvariant is more contagious and spreads faster, she added.
Some districts in the area were on spring break last week. No extra COVID mitigations were put in place at Lake Washington School District before break, said spokesperson Shannon Parthemer. However, the district launched additional testing sites this week.
Absences related to COVID at Lake Washington have been slightly down since the week before spring break, according to data from the district. From March 30 through April 1, about 1% of student absences were related to COVID. On Monday and Tuesday, absences dipped under 1%, before rising to 1% on Wednesday.
Jemma Kim leads Highline’s COVID response team and said there’s been a slight uptick in cases as students returned from break — but nothing so far like the surge in January.
“We’ve come a very, very long way, and especially with our robust testing program,” Kim said.
Although masks are no longer mandatory, public health officials could require students or staff to wear a mask temporarily in some situations, according to the state’s guidance for schools. One such example: if a student who tested positive returns to school after five days of isolation — unless they tested negative after the fifth day.
“If rates continue to increase, masks are an important step that could be taken to prevent transmission of the virus and allow kids to remain engaged in in-person learning,” Zerr said.
Seattle Schools hasn’t said it will require masks again temporarily, but officials said there are scenarios where mask mandates could be reinstated — such as during outbreaks in a classroom or school.
“Normally, in an outbreak within a classroom(s) or school, the masks would be reinstated for students within that particular classroom(s) or school,” Sarah Pritchett, assistant deputy superintendent for the office of strategy, deployment and responsiveness, said in a statement. “Additionally, if we saw case counts double over a two-week period we would monitor and make recommendations in collaboration with Public Health – Seattle & King County.”
Bellevue School District board members passed a resolution this week “strongly encouraging” students and staff to wear masks until the end of the school year. N95, KN95, or KN94 masks are available at the reception desk of every school building.
“We know this is still for some a very polarizing issue: on the shots, on the mitigation measures (and) on masking,” Bellevue spokesperson Janine Thorn said. “We just are very thankful to families who continue to be vigilant and work with us through a lot of the different messaging and changes.”
Issaquah School District also didn’t plan for extra mitigation efforts but will continue to follow state health guidance, spokesperson Lesha Engels said.