COMMENTARY: Despite twists and turns, Vashon’s schools remain strong

I am proud of and grateful for all the outstanding students, families, and educators that we often call our Vashon family.

With less than a few weeks of school left, we are facing more twists and turns due to the pandemic.

Throughout the last two and a half years, decisions about masking and vaccinations have often been very divisive within our school community. I have seen this reflected in local newspaper articles, editorials, letters to the editor, Facebook, and emails to the district.

When the district followed the masking and vaccination mandates from Public Health Seattle King County (PHSKC) and the State, we received challenging emails from concerned Vashon community members about the impacts of masking, their student’s rights, and their student’s mental health. When the district followed the PHSKC and statewide recommendations to remove the mask mandate, once again we received challenging emails from concerned Vashon community members about the impacts of non-masking and the safety of students and staff.

Even though there has not been consensus in the school community, we have continually promoted civility and have respected everyone for their individual and family choices.

Each community is always going to have its own unique local landscape that we have to consider when on this COVID-19 roller coaster. We are very fortunate on Vashon to have the expertise of local health authority PHSKC in concert with support from the MRC, VYFS, Neighborcare, Vashon Pharmacy, VashonBePrepared, and Sea Mar. PHSKC has repeatedly reported that our student vaccination rates are among the highest if not the highest in our region. They report we have an exemplary system for testing our students and staff as well as the entire school community. They also report our ventilation systems are far above the standard they see in most districts. Still, we are not 100% finished with this ride yet.

When I think about our Swiss cheese approach to COVID mitigation strategies even further, the way I think about it is more in terms of the way the world actually works as opposed to the way the world works in theory. Some may think it’s all or nothing, on or off, good or bad. But the way the world actually works is more in terms of better and worse, more or less. We want our system to be 100% but I wouldn’t say our system isn’t working because it isn’t 100%.

Rather, I would say our students and staff are a lot safer on Vashon given the high-quality strategies and support from the community we have in place. That being said, reducing transmission and keeping students, staff, and families safe, is an ongoing project on Vashon and, as I said earlier, there are twists and turns that we must continue to navigate. We’ve navigated them before and I’m confident that we will work through them together to a successful ending.

On a positive note and one that may also be puzzling to some, our known cases have taken a sharp turn downward last week. Our preliminary numbers show we have less than 10 cases total for the district down from 70 the week prior or an unexpected 86% decrease. We will continue to update our numbers from the weekend, but for the short term, known transmission is moving in the right direction, which is a twist and turn that I know we can all agree is a good thing.

However challenging these last weeks of the 2021-2022 school year have been, it becomes even more important to recognize and be grateful for the celebrations, hopes, and promises that outweigh these challenges many hundredfold. I was very lucky to be a part of the Seattle M’s caravan that had over 640 Vashon community members come together to be in community and share an amazing evening together… and the Mariners won! I am thankful for and was equally lucky to see the amazing group of students, staff, and community members who produced and performed in the delightful horror play, “Spirited Manor.” Bravo!

I am incredibly thankful to the newly energized group of Chautauqua parents, FACE (Family and Community Engagement), who are bringing back popcorn Fridays and Chess tournaments to show that incredible and indelible ORCA spirit. I am also thankful for Vashon Artists In Schools which recently provided incredible art experiences to both McMurray and VHS students during their annual “Be Curious” and “Art Blitz.” I’m very thankful for the extraordinary coaches and staff who recently saw our students rise up and perform their best at State in Boys’ Soccer, Boys’ and Girls’ Track, and Boys’ Lacrosse.

I am truly thankful for the shared vision and ongoing commitment from our School Board to racial equity, our policies that support racial equity, and our newly formed strategic plan. I’m also amazed and thankful for our 133 graduating seniors from the class of 2022, one that will be remembered forever for their absolutely unique high school experience. Lastly, I am proud of and grateful for all the outstanding students, families, and educators that we often call our Vashon family. Each of you has made it through more than two years of twists and turns with excellence. I celebrate all of you as part of the Vashon Promise that I get to see, without exception, every day in our schools.

Dr. Slade McSheehy is the superintendent of Vashon Island School District.