Seattle Public Schools will be closed for one day on Monday in an effort to conduct universal rapid testing of staff and students in response to growing concern over the spread of the omicron variant. School is expected to resume in person on Tuesday.
The district secured 60,000 rapid tests from the state health department and will distribute the tests Monday and throughout the week. Tests will be available for all students at several district middle schools, according to an email sent by the district and posted at seattleschools.org.
It’s unclear whether the tests have also been offered to other school districts. Seattle, the largest district in the state, appears to be the only district in the region that is planning to take an extra day, after the two-week winter break ends, to give students and staff time to test.
SPS officials said the tests are voluntary, and are intended to support a “healthy return to school.”
The news comes amid a surge in cases throughout the school district, according to a news release, and worries about schools’ preparedness for the highly contagious omicron variant. The district had 236 cases over the last two weeks, including 139 cases for the week ending Dec. 17, the largest surge in case numbers since the start of school.
Last week, the school district told parents to be “as ready as possible” for the potential of a temporary shift online.
Earlier this month, the University of Washington announced it would hold classes remotely for a week after winter break, in part to give returning students a chance to test for the coronavirus. Bellevue College is also going remote for most of the month of January.
Since Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to reopen schools, school closures have been handled on a case-by-case basis in each district, and there hasn’t been a universal threshold for what could shut a school down.
Still, “I do think we are likely to see some classroom or school closures given the level of disease out there,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy secretary for COVID-19 response.
In a virtual news conference Thursday afternoon, she explained that it will be up to districts to make those closure or remote instruction decisions based on the number of outbreaks and the availability of staff to run day-to-day operations. During the event, officials didn’t mention they had given tests to Seattle schools or say they had offered them to other school systems.
The definition of an outbreak in Washington’s K-12 schools is at least three probable or confirmed cases — or 10% of a population affected by COVID-19 — in a class or extracurricular group. A total of 349 COVID‐19 outbreaks occurred in K‐12 schools between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30 this year, based on reports to the state health department via local public health jurisdictions. A total of 3,102 COVID-19 cases were associated with outbreaks in K‐12 schools.
Fehrenbach said the public health department encourages schools to monitor school and community transmission rates closely and disrupt school as little as possible. That means that if a classroom has an outbreak, the school or district could decide to have the affected class temporarily return to remote learning until the infection runs its course. However, this is not mandated by health officials.
“If it’s multiple classrooms you might have to do a whole school, and then, if it’s multiple schools in the district you would send the whole district into remote learning,” Fehrenbach said. “But at this time we are hoping and planning that our students will be in person to the greatest extent possible.”
State education officials have also pushed a local approach — but emphasized that in-person learning full-time needs to be the status quo unless a temporary shift to remote learning is required by a health officer.
“It is our continued expectation that schools provide all students with the opportunity to learn in-person,” said Ben King, a spokesperson for the state education department.
There are also other factors, such as staffing shortages, both related and unrelated to the virus, that can force a closure, as was seen earlier this fall when Seattle and other districts shut down because there weren’t enough people to sub in while workers took time off.
In fact, SPS’ initial transition to remote learning back in March 2020 was triggered in some part by a high number of teachers — 10% — calling out of work.
Janine Thorn, a spokesperson for Bellevue School District, said the district, among others in the country, continues to experience a shortage of nutrition and transportation staff and substitute teachers. She said the district is willing to recruit, train and hire qualified candidates.
“There are currently several openings that if not adequately staffed can impact our ability to provide service to our students,” she said.
Before the Thursday announcement, SPS had offered same-day tests on Sunday to kids living in the central and southeast regions of the city.
Washington schools are eligible to participate in the state health department’s “test to stay” program, which provides districts an opportunity to offer a modified quarantine period for unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19 in school. The program allows the student to stay in school after an exposure, so long as they voluntarily remain masked, agree to testing during a seven-day modified quarantine period and stay home and refrain from other activities and contact with others when not in class.
Bellevue schools began test-to-stay practices earlier this school year and will continue to offer diagnostic and screening testing through Atlas Genomics. Weekly screening opportunities will be offered to staff and students at their school site or a central district location. The district will also be hosting a Jan. 7 vaccination clinic at Sammamish High School, offering jabs for kids age 5 and up and boosters for students age 16 and older.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently endorsed the test-to-stay approach after early studies of the practice in districts across the country showed that infections did not increase when schools used this mitigation method.
“The program has helped us reduce days out of school,” Fehrenbach said.
The health official said she is “encouraged by what we have seen in terms of vaccination among the pediatric population” though she’d like to see more families getting their children ages 5 and up vaccinated against the disease. She also said schools “have done a remarkable job” of limiting the spread of COVID-19 in schools and helping to keep classrooms and schools open through the combination of layered mitigation — like masking, distancing and good ventilation — and programs like test-to-stay.
Fehrenbach added, “We are actually very excited to have been at the forefront in implementing this program in our state and we plan to keep it in place going forward because it is a way to keep children in classrooms, which is really important. We’re going to be faced with a lot of demand for this program in the month ahead.”