First day of school arrives, as district fully reopens classrooms

The return to school is happening amid a sustained surge of COVID cases, fueled by the Delta variant

By Jenna Dennison

This week, the full student bodies at Vashon Island School District returned, all at once, to five-day-a-week, in-person school — something that hasn’t happened since March of 2020.

On Monday, at Chautauqua Elementary School, cars lined up in the parking lane in front of the school, while full school buses made their way to the back entrance of the school, as masked children arrived for the first day of school. The same scene played out at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School.

The return to school is happening amid a sustained surge of COVID cases in King County and Vashon, fueled by the Delta variant.

Dr. Jim Bristow, co-coordinator of Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), said that Vashon is now seeing cases nearly every day — something that hasn’t happened since December.

“Our current case rate is still a third to a quarter of King County’s, and that’s good,” Bristow said. “But the island’s current case rate of 50 to 70 per 100,000 people per week is higher than we’ve seen since December.”

Against this backdrop, the school district is currently in the midst of verifying the vaccination status of all of its employees, in order to be in compliance with Gov. Inslee’s recent mandate that all employees and volunteers working for both private and public K-12 school districts, charter schools, and education service districts are fully vaccinated or receive a religious or medical exemption by Oct. 18. Those who fail to comply with the directive will be subject to non-disciplinary dismissal.

The sweeping mandate does not pertain to students, though almost 400 local youth ages 12 and older got shots last May in vaccination clinics presented in partnership between VISD, VashonBePrepared, the MRC, and Vashon Pharmacy.

McSheehy said two weeks ago that he estimated that at least 90 percent of VISD employees are fully vaccinated.

In preparation for the upcoming year, the district recently held lengthy Zoom Q&As with parents of students, detailing safety protocols, and the school board met on Aug. 26.

The board meeting, held at Chautauqua Elementary School, covered details such as each school’s plans handling the full-time return of students in the classroom, new district hires, and parent concerns about the new school year.

The district made several new hires, including new nurse Pam Kirkpatrick, a lifelong Washingtonian who moved to Vashon a year and a half ago. Kirkpatrick has taken over the position nurse Sarah Day occupied, as Day has retired.

Kirkpatrick started in her new role at Vashon in the spring and also covered summer school.

Vashon High School will also be welcoming John Erickson, the new Assistant Principal. Erickson previously worked in the Highline School District in Burien as the Principal of Hilltop Elementary School.

Erickson also has prior experience as a Middle School and High School Dean and was also a High School English teacher in the Auburn School District.

All three principals of each school within the district were also present at the meeting to give a short brief about their plans going into the new school year.

“We are ready and excited to start next week,” said Rebecca Goertzel, Principal of Chautauqua Elementary School.

However, Goertzel did highlight that snacks and lunches at the school were a more contentious issue about which there were surrounding concerns.

A solution the school has come up with is the concept of what Goertzel called “picnic lunch,” where students will sit outside for lunch on sit spots and stadium seat pads. Students will also be spaced out in zones for lunch to allow for proper distancing.

The only exception will be the kindergartners, who will be eating their lunches at the entrance of the school and will be seated at tables.

Principal Greg Allison also detailed McMurray Middle School’s plans for welcoming back students, while also fostering a sense of community among the student body.

Going into the new school year, students will enter the school by grade level in order to promote proper distancing. Students will also not be assigned lockers this year to limit contact in the hallways.

In order to help promote a sense of community, homeroom at the middle school has also been moved to first period.

Allison also stressed that the staff will be focusing on “social-emotional safety” as they move into the new year.

“I think the focus for our teachers this week is creating a space in their classrooms where they meet kids where they are and they check in with them frequently,” said Allison. “They assess what their needs are from a social-emotional standpoint, and really leading with that as they build their curriculum out.”

Danny Rock, Principal of Vashon High School, is also focusing on creating a sense of community among his students. According to Rock, VHS is preparing to have the largest enrollment since he has been principal.

“It is just an unbelievable, mind-boggling, community of kids that are going to be entering into the school,” said Rock. “There won’t ever be a community of students in a high school who have ever had what they have had in terms of previous experience and lack of experience.”

VHS has focused on ensuring quick transitions between classes and will be starting the year with one lunch. Having two lunches, said Rock, had a high social-emotional cost and tended to disproportionately impact students with disabilities and left students feeling isolated. However, the school will monitor the impact of having a single lunch period and can move to two lunch periods if necessary, he said.

Community members were also invited during the meeting to share comments with the board. Two community members submitted comments during the time of public comment.

Kasey Alanis, a parent of a student in the district and the former program director of Vashon Arts in Schools, was highly critical of VISD’s decision to not provide an option for remote learning going into the 2021-2022 school year.

“The decision to not include a remote option leaves medically vulnerable students and their families with the impossible decision to put their child or family at risk, or move their student’s learning out of the district,” said Alanis, who went on to call the district’s failure to provide a remote option “ableist, arrogant and dangerous.”

In a letter that was submitted to the board prior to the meeting and read aloud, Sarah Dolan, a parent of a senior at VHS, expressed her concerns about the high school’s current plans for lunchtime.

“I am writing with great concern about the lack of direction in battling the new COVID variant,” wrote Dolan. “To me, it appears that at least Vashon High School is not adopting even the precautionary measures taken for the original virus, and with the new variant being at least twice as contagious, more extreme measures are needed to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Dolan attached to her letter a KUOW interview with Stephen Lim, a professor of Health Metrics Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In the interview, Lim advises ways for schools to handle mealtimes and other concerns about sending students back to school amid the surge of the Delta variant.

In an interview prior to the board meeting, McSheehy said that VISD will continue to send email alerts, as it did last year, notifying the community about positive cases of COVID in the school district.

In recent correspondence with district parents, McSheehy has also outlined the school’s strict indoor masking policy for all students and staff. He said the district will follow all guidance from Public Health – Seattle King County and the Washington Department of Health (DOH) regarding school safety, as well as again partner with Vashon’s MRC this year.