In early 2020, as the novel coronavirus reared its bristling head, Washington State was among the first in the nation to close schools as a precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Friday marked the grim two-year reminder that the first fatal case in the United States was diagnosed in a Snohomish County man.
On the eve of the anniversary, Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of State Schools, and Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, Chief Scientific Officer of the State, gave an update from the virtual community on recommended vaccination practices and health protocols, and spoke about pandemic trends in Washington schools.
They also urged parents to consider having their children vaccinated. According to state health data, only 23 percent of Washington children ages 5 to 11 are fully immunized. Reykdal said just over half of middle school students in the state are vaccinated and 65% of high school students have received the vaccine.
Yet unlike the first months of community closures, a combination of vaccinations and practices such as testing, face covering, 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 there appears to be a low incidence rate of coronavirus spreading in schools. A total of 349 COVID‐19 outbreaks in K‐12 have been reported to the state health department between August 1 and November 30. A total of 3,102 cases of COVID-19 have been associated with outbreaks at these schools during this time.
The superintendent said the biggest challenge with keeping schools open at the moment is a shortage of staff, from bus drivers to paraeducators to teachers. Last week, several schools in the Seattle district moved to distance learningpartly due to lack of staff.
“The temporary closures we’re seeing across the state — most of them temporarily moving to remote learning — are because they can’t safely staff schools,” Reykdal said. “People should expect to see this happen for a few more weeks, there are small waves [of closures]. We’ve had districts before that had to go away for three to five days, and they’re back now. »
There aren’t enough alternates on district rosters to help fill out, and the reasons aren’t all directly related to the coronavirus; some positions have always been difficult 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 used to be. ‘have ever been’, and attributed this to the highly infectious omicron variant.
He said overall rates of positive cases are likely underreported because some people don’t get tested and those who test with home kits don’t tend to report their results to local public health officials. That gap could continue to widen as state and federal governments distribute millions of 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 close contact does not necessarily mean a student or staff member will automatically be sent home.
Students at participating schools can be part of the state’s “test to stay” program, which allows children to continue participating in class with close supervision and agreement to limit out-of-class activities.
Much of Thursday’s program focused on the safety, effectiveness, individual and community benefits of getting coronavirus vaccines and boosters. But a look at the low numbers of vaccines, particularly among school-aged children, suggests families aren’t buying the message entirely.
The superintendent said the decision of whether or not to impose coronavirus vaccines and boosters is in the hands of public health officials, and such a decision is unlikely to be made this school year.