Case counts in schools have soared in January

In January alone, 61 students at VHS have contracted COVID — 12% of the student body.

Update, Jan. 19:

After this article went to press on Jan. 18 for The Beachcomber’s print edition, Vashon Island School District released updated numbers for confirmed cases of COVID in students and staff for the periods of Jan. 10 to Jan. 16, and Jan. 17 to 19.

These case numbers are significantly higher than numbers (for the period of Jan. 10 to 14) which were announced by Superintendent Slade McSheehy at a school board meeting on Jan. 13, and in an interview with The Beachcomber on Friday, Jan. 14. The earlier numbers are detailed in the article below.

The following are the most recent numbers.

In total, there have been 123 cases in VISD staff and students between January 3 and 19.

For the period of Jan. 10 to Jan. 19 alone, there were 48 new cases in the district, with 24 of those cases affecting VHS students.

82 students at VHS have had confirmed cases of COVID since the school opened in the fall — 16.33% of the 502-member student body. In January alone, 61 students at VHS have contracted COVID — 12% of the student body.

Original article, Jan. 18:

Vashon Island School District (VISD) has been slammed with cases of COVID-19 during the first two weeks of January.

There were 94 cases in the district in that time period, affecting both students and staff at all three local schools.

Forty-six of those cases were in students at Vashon High School (VHS) — a number representing 9.1% of the 502-member student body.

The Omicron surge also caused the overall percentage of COVID cases in VHS students since the beginning of the school year to rise to 13.36% of the student body. That almost matches the 14% caseload percentage for students at Auburn High School — a school in one of the hardest-hit communities in King County.

In both in a phone conversation with The Beachcomber on Friday, June 13, and at a school board meeting held on Thursday, June 13, Superintendent Slade McSheehy emphasized that there had been a significant drop in cases in the district from the first week in January to the second, with only 19 cases reported in staff and students combined for the week ending Jan. 14 — a 74% drop from the previous week’s total of 75.

McSheehy also explained that he believed that the majority of the district’s cases had come from gatherings over the holiday break, and so would continue to decrease, especially given Vashon’s and the district’s high vaccination rates.

“I felt confident — because we have a pattern when we test close contacts [where] we typically see below 2% transmission — that we were not going to see more positive cases than we did coming off the break,” he said at the board meeting.

He also detailed the testing efforts in the district for the week of Jan. 10 to 14 — which did not include testing on Tuesday or Wednesday, due to a shortage of rapid tests to supply the district’s Test to Stay program.

Still, a total of 234 students (16% of the district’s students) were tested during the week, McSheehy said, with only two new positive cases found among close contacts of infected students.

But according to Jim Bristow, co-coordinator of Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), the number of cases among young people is still a cause for concern for the entire community.

“Vashon schools have a cumulative COVID-19 rate twice that of Vashon’s population overall and the high school has three to five times the community rate since the start of the pandemic,” Bristow said. “It is essential that the school district and the community recognize the risk that the high infection rate of the student population currently poses. We are repeatedly seeing situations where kids bring COVID home, infect siblings who must then miss school and their parents, who then miss work.”

Bristow also spoke about the continued impacts of COVID and the district’s role in containing its spread in the community.

“You don’t have to end up in the hospital for COVID to upend your life,” he said. “This is especially true for those in low-wage jobs. It’s vital that the district keep testing and follow through with referral of positive cases to MRC for contact tracing.”

School absences throughout the district, particularly at VHS, also surged in the first week of January.

The VHS student newspaper, the Riptide, reported that from January 4 to 7, 123 to 166 students were absent from the school each day — a number representing 24% to 33% of the student body.

Chautauqua Elementary School experienced absences for about 17% to 19% of its student body during the first week of January, according to Rebecca Goertzel, principal of the school.

Absences at McMurray Middle School accounted for 19% to 20% of the student body, said Greg Allison, principal of McMurray.

Staff members have also been out.

At the school board meeting on Thursday, McSheehy said that although the district has also seen a sharp uptake in cases among staff, in-person classes were still possible.

“We are thankfully seeing schools still able to staff,” he said. “It is under pressure, and it hasn’t been easy for any building …. but we are seeing our staff and parents roll up their sleeves.”

In the first week of January, one staff member each at Chautauqua, McMurray and the school’s LINKS program tested positive. Three staff members at VHS tested positive. Three district staff members additionally had a confirmed case.

But in the second week of January, only one staff member, who worked at VHS, tested positive.

Since the return to school after the holiday break, numerous schools in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and throughout the region have reverted to remote learning, with in-person classes paused until Jan. 24 — with staffing shortages a reason cited by many of the schools.

Last week, The Seattle Times reported that some students in SPS are calling for remote learning and stronger safety standards in response to the current spike in cases.

The Times interviewed Natalya McConnell, a sophomore at Franklin High School, which the district’s COVID dashboard shows as having had the most cases of any school in the entire district.

“We understand this [school closures] could have been prevented if the district took necessary precautions,” Franklin sophomore Natalya McConnell told The Times.

According to the dashboard, Franklin, with an enrollment of 1315, logged 188 cases in the first two weeks of January, representing a positivity rate of 8.9% — just under the 9.1% rate of students with positive cases at VHS.

School board welcomes new member

At a special meeting on Jan. 11, the board voted unanimously to invite Marial Fernandez Thuraisingham to join the board, after she was interviewed by board members. Another applicant for the position, Gavin Watson, had withdrawn his name from consideration. Thuraisingham was sworn into office on Jan. 13.

Thuraisingham is a law and policy expert who has worked internationally in the fields promoting justice and good governance. She is currently the Clean Energy Program Lead for Front and Centered, a coalition of communities of color-led groups across Washington State, whose missions address the intersection of equity, environmental and climate justice.

With Thuraisingham’s appointment, the school board once again has all five of its seats filled for the first time since board member Bob Hennessey resigned in late September.

Strategic Plan

VISD’s forthcoming five-year strategic plan will soon be presented to the board for an official vote.

Throughout the fall, the district has been engaged in the strategic planning process, led by an Oakland, California-based company, Performance Fact, at a cost of between $75,000 and $85,000 to the district.

Mutiu Fabbayi, who is president and CEO of Performance Fact, will present at a special school board review of the finalized strategic plan. The meeting will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, in the VISD Board Conference Room. Following that meeting, the board will have its regular meeting. Both are public meetings and will be viewable on the district’s YouTube page at tinyurl.com/bddp6saj.