Experts Offer Insights on Reopening Island Schools

School administrators and union leaders heard from a public health official and members of Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps

At a meeting last week, school district administrators and leaders from labor organizations representing school employees heard from a public health official representing Public Health Seattle King County (PHSKC) and doctors from Vashon’s own Medical Reserve Corps (MRC).

A key purpose of the Feb. 1 Zoom meeting, according to VISD, was to ask public health partners to help inform decision-making regarding VISD’s phase-in of hybrid in-person learning, as is now permitted under Washington’s new Department of Health guidelines.

This account of the meeting is based on interviews with those who attended and also references a written report from the MRC that was presented to meeting attendees.

Physicians James Bristow, Zach Miller, Clayton Olney and Ina Oppliger represented Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps, though they were clear that they did not consider it their role to make a specific “yes or no” recommendation regarding schools reopening.

“We recognize the risks entailed in in-person learning must be weighed against the societal and mental health risks of not having children in school,” they wrote in their report.

Instead, the MRC’s report was based on the doctors’ many years of expertise as infectious disease specialists as well as their detailed knowledge of Vashon’s infection patterns — gleaned through the MRC’s role as contact tracers on the majority of COVID-19 cases related to Vashon residents.

In their report, the MRC noted the lack of definitive, peer-reviewed studies on how effectively children transmit COVID-19 — saying that the VISD’s decision would be easier if such data existed.

But the MRC did cite proof that local children have been infected with the virus, revealing that 15% of all Vashon COVID cases have been in youth ages 16 or younger, and 11% have been 12 and younger.

Moreover, they said that all Vashon cases in children younger than 12 years old had been asymptomatic, and almost 50% of adult cases had been asymptomatic as well.

Opening schools, they concluded, carried with it an increased risk of asymptomatic spread on the island that could go undetected for several weeks. By the time such spread was revealed, they said, the opportunity to contain an outbreak might be lost.

“We are not raising an abstract, imaginary issue,” the report said. “The data demonstrates a real risk.”

The report went on to note that nearly one-third of COVID clusters traced by MRC over the past four months connected directly to VISD. Five of six VISD-connected clusters included VISD employees who tested positive. Fortunately, there has been no workplace transmission, they noted.

Their report also cited concern that significant numbers of students commute to school on Vashon, amplifying the risk of bringing the mainland’s higher incidence of disease to Vashon. They also cited concerns about more transmissible strains of the virus.

The MRC suggested a range of mix-and-match measures that VISD might consider to help mitigate all these concerns.

These included full vaccination for teachers prior to reopening; and/or partial (one-shot) vaccination of teachers prior to reopening; and/or a calibrated opening of the schools timed to coincide with the completion of vaccination for all of Vashon’s elderly population.

Other suggested mitigation measures included double-masking and fitting N95 masks for teachers; and/or instituting a program of surveillance testing for students and staff.

While noting that the costs of testing were high, they said that the measure could be of particular value to VISD because it would identify asymptomatic patients that otherwise would go undetected until spread within the school community had occurred.

In addition, they also strongly suggested that VISD consider instituting a social contract health pledge for students, staff and parents. Key elements of the pledge would be promises to stay at home if any symptoms occur, to avoid multifamily gatherings, to eliminate travel for pleasure and to quarantine after essential travel before returning to school.

“These are the actions that have worked so well to protect Vashon public health for the past 10 months,” they wrote.

Meeting attendees also heard a presentation from Sara Rigel, deputy of PHSKC’s COVID-19 Schools and Child Care Task Force.

Rigel told The Beachcomber that her presentation focused on the Washington Department of Health’s new guidelines for in-person learning, which encourage in-person learning.

According to those guidelines, she said, research and data from multiple sources show that schools can successfully limit the transmission of COVID-19 in schools and their surrounding communities by following strong health and safety protocols.

These protocols include practicing physical distancing between staff and students, requiring face coverings for all in the schools, improving ventilation and instituting enhanced cleaning and sanitation measures.

In a phone interview with The Beachcomber, Rigel said that DOH and PHSKC’s guidance to schools, developed in December, had not changed in light of the roll-out of vaccines or in response to the recent emergence of more transmissible variants of COVID-19.

Referencing a blog post by Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, who helms PHSKC, Rigel said that vaccinations could help lower risk to school staff in addition to, but not as a replacement for effective implementation of the COVID-19 safety guidelines required by the governor.

Of variants, she said, “the recommended prevention measures are the same, but adherence must be higher to prevent transmission.”

When asked by The Beachcomber to speak about the issue of lack of scientific data on how effectively the virus is transmitted by children, Rigel returned to DOH’s main argument for re-opening schools.

“I’m not sure I have an opinion there,” she said. “But there is mounting evidence that limited cases have been tied to in-person learning, where we can see that health and safety measures are in place.”

Of the MRC’s presentation, Rigel noted that it contained recommendations that were not aligned with the governor’s office and public health, including the MRC’s recommendation for teachers to wear N95 masks.

In an interview after the meeting, McSheehy also said that Washington Labor and Industries (L&I) did not require N95 masks for teachers in regular classrooms and that schools were currently instructed to tailor PPE needs for different teachers and specialists depending on their need for close contact with students.

In terms of his own leanings toward safety measures needed to re-open schools, McSheehy said that he was following Department of Health guidelines, as he had since the time the pandemic started.

“There are not DOH or CDC recommendations for [school staff] vaccinations or surveillance testing,” he said, though he did say that he and School Nurse Sarah Day had explored three possibilities for surveillance testing in the schools.

In recent conversations with The Beachcomber, McSheehy has repeatedly stressed his concern for the mental health and emotional well-being of students and shared passages from several letters he has received from parents who have implored him to re-open the schools to in-person learning as soon as possible.

At VISD’s most recent school board meeting, two board representatives from Vashon High School also urged a return to high school, as soon as possible, to benefit students’ mental health.

McSheehy also cited academic setbacks for students, sharing a graph that showed 127 “F” grades given in the first semester of 2020-21 rising to, compared to 35 such grades in the first semester of 2019-20.

Union leaders in the meeting took away their own impressions of the meeting.

Jenny Granum, who is co-president of VEA, representing teachers, said that her union’s members felt like they had heard two totally different things from PHSKC and the MRC.

“The Department of Health is stating that it is safe to start returning to school in hybrid, yet as you can see from the MRC’s advice, their opinion is quite the contrary,” she said.

Granum went on to state that VEA’s goal is safety first.

“There are a lot of questions still about asymptomatic children with the virus returning to school, teachers returning prior to vaccination, the potential for spreading the virus to our greater island community, and the new variants that are proving to be more contagious,” she said.

Elizabeth Parrish, co-president of Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP), representing para-educators, specialists, and office staff in the schools, expressed similar concerns.

“While PHSKC believes that it is safe for students to return to in-person instruction, we felt like they were making that statement without taking into consideration the impacts on our school staff and the larger Vashon community,” Parrish said, noting that PHSKC’s presentation did not acknowledge that a high percentage of Vashon’s population was over the age of 65.

Parrish said the MRC’s doctors expressed many of the same concerns that VESP has around asymptomatic transmission, prioritizing vaccinations for school staff and other safety measures. She said VESP members were deeply concerned by MRC statistics showing high numbers of asymptomatic cases on Vashon among both adults and children.

“This has real implication when you think of increased numbers of students and staff gathering daily in the school setting,” she said. “Do we have the PPE resources and contract tracing capacity to keep students and staff safe?”

As a follow-up to the meeting with the MRC and PHSKC, VESP’s leadership team met with the district last Friday to continue the discussion on how to proceed — a meeting that Parrish indicated did not result in agreement.

“While the district would like to move forward with planning for hybrid instruction, VESP members are still resolute in our position of being vaccinated prior to returning to classroom instruction — something that the MRC also recommends,” Parrish said. “This is important for the health of our members and their families, our students and the larger Vashon community. We have worked so hard over the past year to keep community transmission low. Now is not the time to jeopardize the health of our Vashon community.”

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