Two weeks after Seattle-area kids went back to class, hundreds of area students and school employees have either tested positive for the coronavirus or have been pulled out of school because they had close contact with someone who had the virus.
But it’s “a little too early” to have concrete data on how well Washington state is doing overall at keeping transmission rates low in schools, said Lacy Fehrenbach, the deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response at the state Department of Health.
Fehrenbach said last year that schools, and students who returned in person, did a good job of following health and safety protocols and responding quickly when cases were detected.
“I believe that our schools are prepared,” she said. “We are very confident about those layers of mitigation measures,” which now include vaccines for kids ages 12 and older.
Masking, physical distancing, ventilation, personal hygiene, cleaning buildings, responding to cases with rapid testing and contact tracing are key to keeping cases in schools low, she said. And school staff and kids must stay at home if they’re feeling any COVID-19-related symptoms.
Most districts in the area, including Seattle Public Schools, have only been on campus eight days. For thousands of students and public school employees, this school year will be the first full-time in-person schedule since schools were forced to shut down in March 2020.
Many districts are keeping online dashboards that show the number of students and staff who have tested positive. While cases have been identified by schools, not all cases were contracted in schools, which can make some contract tracing inconclusive.
After a case has been confirmed on a school campus, dozens of students may have to make the switch back to online learning as they quarantine.
As the delta variant spreads, “we knew that was going to have an impact on schools and getting kids back in classrooms,” said Dr. Frank Bell, a pediatrician at Swedish Medical Center focused on pediatric infectious diseases.
“There’s going to be transmission in schools,” said Bell, who is also a board member for Washington Chapter-American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s not a question of if but how much.”
Janet Baseman, associate dean for public health practice at the University of Washington School of Public Health, is watching community transmission and vaccination levels as both an epidemiologist and a parent who just sent three kids, ages 7, 10 and 12, back to school. Her 12-year-old is vaccinated.
“The higher the community level transmissions, the more likely we are to see cases in schools,” Baseman said. “Nobody should be surprised that we are seeing cases in schools because we’re seeing cases all over the place. We know that the likelihood of becoming a case is higher among unvaccinated people and a lot of our unvaccinated people right now are kids under 12.”
Since Sept. 1 — the first day of school — 41 students and three employees have tested positive at Seattle schools. Seattle estimates it has about 51,000 students enrolled this school year. The data is updated weekly on Mondays.
After Seattle schools confirmed a case at Bailey-Gatzert Elementary this week, about 25 fifth-graders will switch to online learning until Sept. 19, spokesperson Tim Robinson said.
The Lake Washington School District had to quarantine 53 people after one case was reported at Kamiakin Middle School, spokesperson Shannon Parthemer said.
In an email, Parthemer said the number “could increase or decrease based on the results of the investigation, which is ongoing….We are still looking at who is being deemed a close contact on the bus route associated with this positive case.”
Transitioning back to online school
Families and educators alike are worried about students being forced back to remote learning after positive cases are reported. Most parents, health and education experts agree nothing can replicate the benefits students receive from being in a classroom with their peers, and most health experts say transmission in schools is relatively low.
“Kids have suffered an awful lot in 18 months and the bigger picture of health is it’s really important for kids to be back to in-person learning,” said Bell, the pediatrician.
If a Seattle Public Schools student or employee has been in close contact with someone who tested positive, they must quarantine for 14 days, said Dr. Carrie Nicholson, interim director of health policy, procedures, and practice for the district. If the person is fully vaccinated, they don’t have to quarantine, but the district recommends they take a test within three to five days of exposure.
Seattle students who need to switch back to remote learning will receive assignments, lessons, required activities, and assessments from teachers.
Lake Washington students who are absent because they are quarantining will use Microsoft Teams for distance learning. The goal is to keep students with their same teacher, Parthemer said.
Teachers will have a weekly learning plan and will be able to observe class and participate in assignments, discussion, and group work.
In Federal Way, if a student is required to quarantine, they may be issued a laptop or device for remote learning, said spokesperson Whitney Chiang.
What to watch
While the cases counts are still collectively low, Baseman said she, like many other parents, worries about the safety of her children, “and I’m trying to get as much information as I can about what mitigation measures are being put in place at my kids’ schools.”
School districts’ COVID-19 data dashboards can offer a glimpse into what’s happening at a specific school or district, but they don’t tell families about the bigger picture — such as how the coronavirus is being transmitted.
“The efforts that the schools and districts are making to share the COVID case data with the public is great from a transparency standpoint,” but the dashboards would be better if they showed more data and were updated daily to give families real-time insights, Baseman said.
Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response, said that more than 200 public school districts in the state are using tools from a program called “Learn to Return” to help perform COVID-19 screening tests.
Fehrenbach said the state health department is not yet recommending that all eligible students ages 12 and up be vaccinated. On Thursday, Los Angeles public schools, the second-largest district in the nation, approved such a mandate.
And while physical distancing of at least three feet wherever possible is a state requirement, Fehrenbach said she has heard that this is not always being practiced. Complaints can be submitted to the state to be investigated by the department of health or the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“It is a really hard time in the pandemic for families,” said Fehrenbach. “It’s been a year and a half of ups and downs, progress and setbacks.”
She is sending her kids on a bus each day to public schools because she is “confident” that schools can implement proper measures to keep them safe. She worries more about less structured social situations where kids are more likely to be exposed to unmasked or unvaccinated crowds.
“Talk to your school, go with questions and ask what they’re doing to keep kids safe,” she said.