By Elizabeth Shepherd and Jenna Dennison
Note: Many elements of this story broke on Tuesday, Sept. 28, as The Beachcomber was going to press. Superintendent Slade McSheehy could not be reached for comment or confirmation of details that were reported based on information provided by other sources with direct knowledge about the newest cases.
Several newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections in Vashon Island School District (VISD) students have now resulted in two elementary school classrooms being closed due to “outbreaks” — a definition used by Public Health Seattle & King County to describe two or more cases in a single classroom.
Chautauqua Elementary School’s (CES) full-time current enrollment is 454, with most students too young to be vaccinated.
The outbreaks occurred in the ECAEP preschool and a fourth-grade classroom of CES, both of which have now closed for 14 days. Other newly confirmed cases in students in the district took place in two kindergarten classrooms and in the district’s Family Link program.
The new cases, first announced last weekend and early this week, resulted in another large-scale testing operation, on Tuesday, at McMurray Middle School, for 43 close contacts, including school staff as well as classmates and family members of the infected students. In total, around 50 close contacts were identified in the new cases.
The tests, sent to a Seattle lab by Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) resulted in six positive results linked to CES cases, which included two CES staff members, two additional students and two family members of students.
VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy informed the community about some of the cases in emails sent on Friday, Sept. 24, Saturday, Sept. 25, and Monday, Sept. 27.
Notably, the emails on Monday and Tuesday announced the first occurrences of school-based spread of infection in the district. Two additional students who were identified as close contacts of an ECAEP student who was reported to be infected on Sept. 24 have now tested positive, as have two students who were close contacts of the infected student in the 4th-grade classrooms.
Speaking to The Beachcomber on Monday, Superintendent Slade McSheehy reflected on the continuing difficulties posed by running a school district amid a spike in cases, as well as VISD having reached the unfortunate milestone of having school-based spread of COVID.
“We have seen much success with our current layers of mitigation strategies, but COVID continues to teach us that we have to remain vigilant if we are going to see lower transmission rates,” he said.
The new cases bring the total of significant exposure events in the district to seven, taking place in only four weeks since the beginning of five-day-a-week, in-person school at the end of August. Two previous exposure events took place at McMurray Middle School earlier in September, when two students at the school tested positive. All testing of close contacts in those cases came back negative.
The official dashboard of stats from Public Health — Seattle & King County (PHSKC) now shows a total of 180 cases of Vashon residents since the pandemic began. That is up by more than 60 cases since the Delta spike began around July 1. Recent additional community and school district cases are not fully incorporated in the official count.
School board addresses COVID protocols in recent meeting
Against the backdrop of the surge and now-weekly announcements of new cases in the schools, VISD’s COVID-19 protocols continue to evolve. New changes were discussed at the most recent VISD school board meeting, held at Chautauqua Elementary School on Sept. 23.
During the public comment period of the board meeting, three Vashon parents expressed concerns surrounding the district’s policy of allowing vaccinated students back into the classroom, following exposures, without a quarantine period.
“We would like the District to go beyond the minimum State quarantine requirement as well as use rapid COVID tests as part of your risk mitigation,” said parents Katherine and Maria Graces in a letter submitted to the board prior to the meeting. “We know that you are balancing both health and education and we ask you to remember that the minimum guidelines are set for the average student. Please remember that you also have high-risk students in your schools.”
“We have gone above and beyond as a community to prevent the spread of COVID. As a result, we have minimized illness and morbidity from this disease,” said parent Angela London, also in a letter submitted to the board. “I ask that the school do the same — go above and beyond minimum state requirements to keep our community safe.”
The board also discussed its plans to open a COVID-19 testing program, which Superintendent Slade McSheehy expected to be in place by the end of October, “if not earlier.”
VISD is modeling their COVID testing program off of the program that is currently in place at the Bainbridge Island School District, McSheehy said, adding that a team of district staff would be traveling to Bainbridge on Thursday, Sept. 30 to see that district’s testing site.
Currently, Bainbridge does daily testing at their site, running around 40 to 50 tests each day and testing symptomatic students and staff. The site also has the capability to run both the rapid Binax-NOW tests and the Curative PCR tests.
VISD has received its CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment) waiver and received $95,000 in federal funding through the CARES Act to staff the site.
According to McSheehy, the exact opening of the site will depend on staffing. The district hopes to find two people to staff the program. At this time, an exact site location has not been determined.
The board also discussed a new protocol in place with Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps.
The protocol includes the option for family members of students who have been deemed to be close contacts, in school-related cases, to receive additional health guidance from the MRC, if those family members agree that VISD may share their contact information with the MRC.
Currently, all contact tracing for cases in the schools is done by school staff including VISD’s Nursing Services staff. In cases of two or more students in one classroom testing positive, which is defined as an outbreak, Public Health – Seattle & King County also steps in to give additional guidance.
A fact sheet on the new protocol explains the steps taking place in the schools, and the roles assigned to both VISD and the MRC.
“VISD will focus on who can and can’t come to school and the timing of return to school based on the school guidelines from Public Health Seattle & King County and Washington State Department of Health,” the fact sheet says. “MRC will focus on advising families and the community about quarantine and isolation in order to reduce the spread of infection outside the schools.”
Led by a group of doctors with 100 combined years of expertise and experience in internal medicine, pediatrics, infectious disease, immunology and molecular diagnostics, the group has been at the forefront of Vashon’s pandemic response.
The MRC has advised the school district in many ways throughout the pandemic and is now engaged in discussions with the district that will better define the ways in which they will work together in the future.
Dr. Jim Bristow, of the MRC, said he believes the updated protocol will be helpful in terms of building a step into VISD’s process where MRC experts can work directly with families and their students by providing advice and public health education.
“The District has agreed to refer all cases to us after the ‘permission to return to school decision’ is made so we can further evaluate how an exposure might spread from classrooms into the community, and how a student exposure might affect others in a household, particularly those at risk due to age or existing health conditions,” he said.
Bristow acknowledged that current DOH and PHSKC guidelines are less conservative than those of the MRC.
“In an ideal world, the state Department of Health and Public Health – Seattle & King County would adopt more conservative guidelines for when kids are told they can be allowed back into school,” he said. “For example, the Vashon MRC team of doctors feels it’s unnecessarily risky in the current Delta surge conditions to allow all vaccinated students or teachers back in school until a quarantine period has passed and they get a negative PCR test.”