‘Snowball Effect’ — Dance Leads to Outbreak at VHS

A total of 39 known cases of COVID resulted from the dance.

Last week, Vashon Island School District (VISD) reported an outbreak of COVID-19 among attendees of the Vashon High School (VHS) “Snowball” dance held on Saturday, Jan. 28, at Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA).

The dance was attended by approximately 240 people.

On Monday, Superintendent Slade McSheehy said that a total of 39 known cases of COVID had resulted from the dance, though he could not be sure if the number was actually higher given that some parents do not choose to test for COVID or report COVID cases to the district.

Last week, the district also reported that 40 additional students were absent from school, with illnesses that were not confirmed to be related or unrelated to COVID.

In an interview last week, Superintendent Slade McSheehy said that VHS Principal John Erickson and Assistant Principal Sabrina Kovacs had both attended the “Snowball” and subsequently reported COVID-19 infections. They were out sick for the week of Monday, Jan. 30 to Friday, Feb. 3.

In their absence, numerous substitutes filled in at VHS for Erickson and Kovacs, including Director of Teaching and Learning Dr. Stephanie Spencer, former McMurray Middle School principal and current substitute teacher Mike Kirk, former VHS principal Susan Hansen, and McSheehy himself.

McSheehy said that there had been no COVID safety messaging to students prior to the dance, suggesting that students consider masking at the dance or testing before attending it.

When asked why not, McSheehy said there was no directive to do so.

“The district follows Public Health — Seattle & King County (PHSKC guidance and recommendations during the outbreak, just as we have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — which doesn’t have specific instructions surrounding dances,” he said.

Given the case count related to the dance, the situation at VHS more than met the PHSKC criteria for an outbreak, which is based on COVID cases among 10% of those attending school-related events such as dances.

Because of this, PHSKC issued a strong recommendation for VISD to require masking at VHS for the next two weeks.

Following that recommendation, VHS has instituted universal masking during the school day for students, staff, and guests in the building from Feb. 3-17, with the caveat that students who do not mask will not be disciplined or otherwise excluded from the classroom.

Masks will continue to be provided for students during school hours when they are required, and at any after-school events such as sports, where they are strongly recommended, according to the district.

The last time that mandatory masking was reinstated at VHS occurred in early June of 2022, after cases rose sharply — numbering 73 in late May, according to the VISD COVID-19 Data Dashboard.

The outbreak delayed the production of a school play and moved events including the presentation of scholarships and academic awards to remote.

That outbreak, too, was attributed to a school dance — the VHS prom held on May 21.

Outbreak also affects VCA

The “Snowball” outbreak has also affected the staff and operations of VCA, where the school dance was held in the arts center’s atrium lobby space.

According to Allison Halstead Reid, VCA’s executive director, a VCA staff member who served as the event manager of the dance, and was present throughout it, also tested positive for COVID in the days following the dance.

In an interview last week, Halstead Reid said that she was working remotely, as she had been in close contact with the infected staff member.

Neither she nor the staff member had received advance notice from VISD about the outbreak, she said.

McSheehy, when asked by The Beachcomber if he had reached out to VCA directly about the outbreak, said he had not done so, but didn’t know if anyone else at the district had done so because such notification was not required by PHSKC.

Attendance at the dance did not exceed VCA’s capacity in the atrium, Halstead Reid said, and the staff had increased ventilation in the space during the dance by keeping all the doors and windows open throughout the event.

Additional precautions taken by VCA in the wake of the event have included temporarily reinstating its own masking requirement for VCA’s upper-level dance classes, which are mostly attended by students in high school grades.

VISD’s use of the rental space for the dance, Halstead Reid said, had been governed by a standard rental agreement that does not currently require mask usage in the space, given that county and state mask mandates are not in place.

“We reserve the right for [renters] to choose if they encourage masks,” she said.

However, Halstead Reid pointed out prominent signage on and near VCA’s doors reminding those who enter the building that masking is now recommended, due to Vashon’s current Elevated Risk status for COVID — a metric developed by VashonBePrepared and its coalition of partners.

Halstead Reid said that also since early December, VCA’S staff has been masked at the arts center’s events — a practice she believes has encouraged patrons to mask up as well.

She also said that VCA encourages and supports regular testing among its staff in order to help the arts center to remain open and safe in times of elevated transmission.

VCA will continue to work closely with VashonBePrepared and its Medical Reserve Corps, in all matters related to COVID safety in the building, she added.

Medical Reserve Corps offers help

VashonBePrepared, and its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) also responded to the outbreak at VHS — after learning about it, along with the rest of the community, through community-wide emails sent by VISD, said Emergency Operations Manager (EOC) Rick Wallace.

On Friday, an EOC email alert to its local subscribers advised islanders to call its MRC helpline, at 844-469-4554, for guidance regarding COVID infections and/or exposures linked to the school outbreak.

MRC doctors also emailed McSheehy on Friday, offering to assist the district in its response to the outbreak, said MRC leader Dr. Jim Bristow.

That offer, said Bristow, was politely declined by McSheehy, who replied to say the district had the situation in hand.

Still, Bristow and Dr. Zach Miller, another MRC leader, urged caution to the wider community in response to the outbreak at VHS.

Miller said that COVID — even though it had reached an endemic phase — was still dangerous to those on Vashon and beyond.

“Endemic doesn’t mean the spread of COVID has ended — just the opposite,” he said.

“Endemic means COVID is here to stay. We are seeing wave after wave of variants and each one is more contagious than the last as the virus evolves.”

COVID is still resulting in an average of 500 COVID deaths per day in America, Miller said — two to three times what the worst flu years produce — and hospitals are still stressed by a high number of COVID patients.

Bristow said that Vashon, due to its population demographics, was particularly vulnerable to community outbreaks such as the one that had occurred after the VHS dance.

“Our median age on Vashon is 54 years,” Bristow said. “That’s almost 20 years older than the population of the mainland.”

That mattered, said Bristow, because people over 50 bear the primary burden of severe illness and death from COVID, and the same holds true for hospitalizations.

“It’s a fact that we have more people at serious risk from COVID on Vashon,” he said, detailing how quickly outbreaks, even among young people, have a ripple effect.

“So when a couple of dozen youths get sick, it doesn’t stay at school,” he said.

“Before they know they are infectious, they go home, go to work, go to stores, and hang out with friends. At home or in their daily lives, they will mix with parents, grandparents and acquaintances who are in high-risk groups. It may seem like just a cold, but it can be lethal for others.”

Need a test, or advice?

Vashon Island School District has a COVID-19 testing center open to all staff and students at Student Link. Testing is free and available on a first-come/first-served basis. Hours of operation are 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday-Friday.

Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps operates a helpline for all islanders who seek guidance regarding COVID infections and/or exposures. Call 844-469-4554.

Elizabeth Shepherd, editor of The Beachcomber, contributed reporting to this article.