Last Thursday and Sunday, three more cases of COVID-19 in Chautauqua Elementary School (CES) students were reported to the community, bringing the total number of cases reported in Vashon Island School District (VISD) students to 14 since the start of school almost six weeks ago.
Additionally, two district staff members have also tested positive for the virus since school began in late August.
All but two of the cases have occurred at CES, where most of the 454 students are too young to be vaccinated.
In late September, the elementary school was the site of two classroom outbreaks — a term defined by Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC) as an instance of two or more students in one classroom testing positive for the virus.
These two classrooms — the ECEAP preschool and a fourth-grade classroom — both reverted to at-home learning after close contacts of the index students in the classrooms also tested positive for COVID-19. Students in both classrooms are set to return to school this week.
Cases in the schools have now led to 11 significant exposure events, prompting five mass-testing pop-up clinics conducted by Vashon’s all-volunteer Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) on district property. More than 200 people connected to school cases, including students, their family members and district staff, have been tested at these clinics by the MRC, using highly accurate PCR testing sent to a Seattle lab.
The district has not yet implemented its own testing program. According to Slade McSheehy, VISD superintendent, that program is expected to be in place by late October.
The district is also in the process of hiring two additional staff members — an assistant nurse and contact tracer — to assist School Nurse Pam Kirkpatrick.
But according to McSheehy, Kirkpatrick no longer has a role in determining close contacts of infected students — a change in practice for the district, as both former School Nurse Sarah Day as well as the newly hired Kirkpatrick have been tasked with contact tracing in the district cases in the past.
The change — made “one to two weeks ago,” according to McSheehy — came after the district “identified the need, opportunity, and a better way to allocate resources.”
Going forward, McSheehy said, the district’s designated COVID-19 coordinators — a group or four that includes McSheehy and the three principals of Vashon schools — will make determinations about close contacts in cases in the schools.
McSheehy said that no medical expertise is needed for the role, as close contacts are determined according to guidelines provided by the Washington Department of Health (WADOH) at tinyurl.com/3t5phbb9m and tinyurl.com/3c2vj87f.
Vashon’s MRC, he added, has scheduled a workshop to be presented to the district’s COVID-19 coordinators in the coming week.
Throughout the 2020-21 school year, MRC doctors had been consulted by nursing staff at the school in the course of carrying out their work as district contact tracers.
McSheehy said no plans were in the works for the MRC to step back into any contact tracing role in the district, though it has also become a matter of policy, this fall, for the school to refer parents to contact the MRC if they have additional concerns following cases.
However, parents should know that the MRC recommendations, in terms of quarantines for close contacts of infected students, are more cautious than those made by the district, which now follows WADOH guidelines.
At the beginning of the year, the district communicated that it would, in fact, follow the MRC’s quarantine recommendations.
In late August, McSheehy told school staff, in an email obtained by The Beachcomber, that the district intended to follow the MRC’s more cautious recommendations in terms of quarantine measures for close contacts of infected students.
“Given the Delta variant’s impact on the vaccinated and unvaccinated and the continuing high levels of transmission in King County, the MRC recommendation for vaccinated staff and students who are identified as a close contact will most likely be to quarantine with a two PCR test follow up over a period of 7-10 days,” McSheehy told his staff. “This is different from the WADOH guidance. The WADOH guidance exempts vaccinated staff and students from quarantine, however, the guidance was written in May and did not consider the new Delta variant. Taking a more conservative approach will help prevent further spread with the goal of keeping our schools open. When transmission decreases and more data is available, the recommendations will most likely change.”
Last week, McSheehy told The Beachcomber that this approach, announced in late August to staff, was no longer in effect, as state guidelines have been revised to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are following WADOH/PHSKC guidance,” McSheehy said. “PHSKC is VISD’s local health authority. [Our] updated response protocol makes clear how Vashon MRC and VISD will work together in our separate roles. 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 PHSKC and WADOH. The MRC will focus on advising families and the community about quarantine and isolation in order to reduce spread of infection outside the schools.”
The district’s current response protocol, he added, can be reviewed on the district’s website, at vashonsd.org/coronavirusupdates.
Clarification: This article has been revised, for greater clarity, in the passage that describes how the district communicated in August that it planned to follow more cautious recommendations from the MRC regarding quarantines of close contacts of infected students.