After a meeting on Monday with an official of Public Health Seattle King County (PHSKC) and members of the agency’s COVID-19 investigation team, Vashon Island School District Superintendent Slade McSheedy said that there will be significant changes in the way that VISD responds to future cases of COVID-19 among students and district staff.
The meeting with PHSKC and the changes to VISD’s policies and protocols came in the wake of new COVID-19 cases in the district last week that potentially exposed students attending sports practices on Vashon.
The most significant change decided at the meeting, McSheehy said, is he will no longer have a decision-making role in determining public health actions to be taken on cases affecting the district. Instead, that authority will be given to PHSKC, which will determine measures including whether to quarantine and/or contact trace district students and employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 on campus or during school activities.
If COVID-19 cases impact sports teams in the future, McSheehy said, those teams’ activities will be paused until Public Health renders its judgment of what actions to take in those cases.
Communication with Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps, McSheehy said, will be increased, and the group will play a more important role in future cases, conducting contact tracing and investigations of incidents related to the district.
Daily meetings between McSheehy and district nursing staff will also now take place when there are identified cases in the district — a practice McSheehy said was not previously in place.
Students will also be required to fill in a simple sign-in sheet when riding school buses, to aid in any further investigations where the identification of who was on a bus at a particular time is needed. This protocol was also not in place previously.
McSheehy also said that the school administration, not team coaches, will now communicate with parents following COVID-related incidents impacting school sports.
In addition to all these changes, the meeting also resulted in an order from PHSKC’s investigative team to quarantine three additional students exposed to COVID-19 in the district one week ago, McSheehy said.
Outbreak brings exposure to athletes
Currently, four Vashon High School students have now tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of six additional students who were close contacts of the infected students have been asked to test and quarantine for 14 days.
All four students identified as positive, and one of the students who is quarantined, were present at an off-campus social gathering that was not a part of any school program or activity. The additional quarantined students were all exposed later, as a result of close contact with two of the infected students in the course of attending sports practices at the school district. These exposures took place on a school bus and ferry, McSheehy said.
Two emails from McSheehy have been sent to district parents about the cases. The first, last Friday, announced the cases and initial quarantines. His second email, sent Monday, provided an update about the meeting between the district and PHSKC and announced the quarantine of the three additional students.
Additionally, an email was sent out on Monday morning by VISD Athletic Director Andy Sears to the families of members of two sports teams who had participated in practices with the infected students on March 22. This email contained more information about the cases and resources on optional COVID-19 testing. It was the first time that the district initiated communication with the families of the student-athletes on sports teams most impacted by the cases.
Initially, Superintendent opted not to follow MRC’s guidance
In the district’s initial response to the cases last week, the district followed what has been standard practice in COVID cases occurring in the schools, with School Nurse Sarah Day consulting with Vashon’s MRC about the details of the case. But in this instance, McSheehy chose not to accept the MRC’s recommendations for actions to be taken in response to the case.
Prior to the time that McSheehy sent out his first email, on Friday, multiple islanders spoke to The Beachcomber, with some requesting anonymity, about details surrounding the cases that suggested the potential exposure of a wide number of students.
When contacted by phone on Friday, McSheehy said he had been told by Day that Vashon’s MRC had recommended the quarantine of all commuter students who had ridden the school bus with the infected students and an entire team playing one sport at the school.
Dr. Jim Bristow, a member of the MRC, characterized the recommendations differently, saying that the MRC had recommended quarantining and testing students who had ridden the bus with the infected students, and also that contact tracing should be undertaken to understand whether or not athletes who were not on the bus should also be quarantined. Because activities had occurred outdoors, he said, the MRC believes those exposures were a lower risk.
In any case, McSheehy told The Beachcomber on Friday that he had not spoken personally to any MRC members about the case but had chosen not to accept their recommendations for two reasons.
The first, he said, came from his reading of Department of Health guidelines online. He said he did not find specific guidance regarding exposures on school buses, and so had focused on the definition of a “close contact” as a person who had spent a cumulative total of 15 minutes within six feet of an infected person. The bus ride from the North End ferry dock to VHS, he said, takes 11 minutes.
He also said he determined, after consulting with team coaches and students and reviewing camera footage from the school bus, that only three additional students had been exposed to the infected students for more than 15 minutes, including time spent on two bus rides both to and from school.
Moreover, he said that his primary reason for not quarantining more students was based on his concern for the mental health and social well-being of students, and the positive impact of participating in sports in terms of these concerns.
“I’m student-centered, and thought that the MRC’s recommendation put students’ mental health and social well-being at risk,” he said.
He also said on Friday that additional communication about the incident has been given to current student-athletes, providing information the district thought was important, including resources and information on testing.
Reached by phone, Day declined to comment, saying decisions regarding this case were made by the school administration and that she referred any questions back to the administration.
The MRC explained its response
The MRC, which has informed the response of Day in her contract tracing roles in previous cases, has been responsible for swift, decisive and science-based responses to COVID cases on Vashon throughout the pandemic, including those taking place in island businesses.
In a phone interview last Friday, Dr. Zach Miller, who is an infectious disease specialist who has overseen many of the MRC’s contact tracing efforts, spoke broadly about the necessity of sometimes casting a wide net in the early stages of a contact tracing effort, with the understanding that some of those initially quarantined might well be released early as further details emerge.
He also said that the success of contact tracing efforts is determined by the speed with which they are initiated, thus limiting further transmission.
The highly effective contact tracing efforts of the MRC in other cases on Vashon, Miller said, have often involved multiple interviews with people that have taken place over a period of time, yielding more information along the way — including at times, new information about the origin and timeline of cases. Frequently, he added, people’s recollections about their close contacts evolve over time.
In another phone interview on Friday, Dr. Bristow, of the MRC, explained why the MRC made its recommendation to VISD in this case, which he said the group of doctors relayed to Day on Wednesday, March 24.
“Our concern was the activity bus that took them to school for practice,” Bristow said. “Buses are enclosed and not very well-ventilated places where super-spreader events are well-documented to occur.”
He also said that it was not possible to know if the bus ride, including loading and off-loading, took 11 minutes or longer. Additionally, he said that students had not only taken a bus to the school but presumably a second bus back to the ferry after practice, doubling the cumulative exposure time.
Current CDC guidance defines a close contact as someone who has been within six feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period — for example, three individual five-minute exposures for a total of 15 minutes in one day.
Bristow said the MRC doctors had found McSheehy’s decision not to follow their recommendation odd, given the timing of the incident — before spring break next week, and following that, a return to limited in-person learning at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School the week of April 12.
With a conservative quarantine strategy in place before those two important calendared events, he said, the district could have put this case behind them by the time secondary students returned to the classroom.
Placing McSheehy’s decision in context, Bristow said that the business community on the island had done extraordinarily well in terms of taking a cautious and highly transparent approach when cases had cropped up in local workplaces.
“We started by reminding local businesses that they were going to have cases — but the goal is to conduct your business in such a way that when you have a case, you prevent [further] transmission,” he said. “The same thing applies to the school district.”
“What’s kept Vashon safe is a conservative approach,” he said.
McSheehy’s role changes
McSheehy, last Friday, said that he was the person responsible for making final decisions regarding VISD’s response to COVID cases, and declined to comment on whether Nurse Day had recommended following the MRC’s advice in this case.
“I am the decision-maker and with that responsibility comes tough questions,” he said.
But by Monday, McSheehy said he was happy to relinquish the role of determining what actions should be taken following COVID-19 cases in the district to PHSKC.
In the current case, he said, “there was a long list of things we could have done better,” and that after going through the process of discussing the case with PHSKC, he was convinced that his team at VISD was much better for the experience of last week and the lessons learned from it.
“In the future, Public Health will make the decisions, not me,” he said. “They will take responsibility for that and that will provide our community with the reassurance that a public health official is making the decision, instead of having a superintendent figure it out.”
A total of 188 students are currently registered for Nisqually League competitive sports. Sports practices paused for one afternoon at the school due to the new cases of COVID in the district, but have resumed since that time.
A seven-week season for baseball, softball, golf, boys’ soccer, girls’ tennis, and track and field is taking place through May 3. VISD’s final season for basketball and wrestling will take place indoors from May 10 to June 14.
According to the Governor’s Phase 3 reopening rules, 400 people can now attend these indoor sporting events.