In Response To COVID Cases, VISD Must Get It Right

Concern for the mental well-being of students and for their physical health aren’t mutually exclusive

  • Friday, April 2, 2021 5:39pm
  • Opinion

It’s good to know — after students attending athletic practices on Vashon were potentially exposed to COVID-19 — that the school district is strengthening its procedures on how to handle cases involving students, teachers and staff in the district.

With all grades at Chautauqua Elementary now fully engaged in hybrid education, and secondary students headed back to some in-person learning soon, and almost 200 kids currently participating in sports activities, it is critically important to everyone in the community that VISD gets things right.

It is not surprising that there are new cases of COVID in teenagers — these are not the first to occur on Vashon, though none until this point have involved possible exposures through VISD programs.

We hope that all the teens involved in this situation know that there should be no shame or stigma whatsoever attached to catching or being exposed to COVID.

Thirty million people in the United States have now been infected with the highly-contagious disease, and the new cases at the school district are now simply part of that enormous number. In this community, we should all have nothing but sympathy and well-wishes for them, as well as the students who are now in quarantine.

That’s why our story in this week’s Beachcomber focuses instead on district leadership and decision making, and what led to the change in policy at the school.

In the immediate wake of this complicated case, Superintendent Slade McSheehy chose not to accept guidance and assistance in follow-up contact tracing from Vashon’s esteemed and nationally recognized Medical Reserve Corps — whose doctors have advised School Nurse Sarah Day throughout the pandemic on how to handle cases in the district without controversy.

In this case, the MRC strongly urged the district to take a conservative approach to a complex situation that could have at least potentially involved a wider exposure of students on a school bus and at outdoor sports practices. They advised a wider quarantine of students who traveled with infected students on the bus and contact tracing of some other students as well.

Instead, McSheehy and school coaches seem to have investigated the case themselves, looking at camera footage on buses and talking to students and coaches before quickly deciding on a much more limited approach.

Sports practice almost immediately resumed at the school after a brief pause, and parents of youth involved in sports at the school weren’t even immediately contacted by email with additional details about the incident.

None of these actions came close to the definition of real contact tracing — a lengthy and painstaking process, beginning as quickly as possible after a known infection, conducted by trained and credentialed professionals.

So it’s reassuring that from now on, PHSKC will determine actions to be taken in district cases and that the MRC will have a broader role in contact tracing investigations in those cases.

McSheehy now says he’s glad that PHSKC experts now have decision-making responsibility because they are the ones who should be making those decisions.

The problem is that in this case, McSheehy already had guidance from MRC experts and he didn’t accept it — saying in fact that to have done so would be bad for students’ mental health.

But concern for both the mental well-being of students and a more rigorous approach to their physical health aren’t mutually exclusive at all — in fact, they are linked.

In the lead-up to re-opening schools to in-person learning, McSheehy repeatedly told the community and his staff that the district has processes and procedures in place to make in-person school safe.

We learned this week that these things needed bolstering.

The pandemic has been so hard, and so long — and required so much of everyone who works in the school district. It can also be a sport in this town to criticize VISD leadership. However, in this case, we think close scrutiny and accountability are warranted. We’ve done that on these pages, and hope the Vashon’s school board will also do this work.

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