With last week’s announcement that Vashon Island School District will begin in-person hybrid education on March 1, islanders now face new challenges both in terms of public health and public discourse.
We need to learn how to talk to each other about this, and more importantly, what we can all do to protect our community now that the decision has been made to bring kids back into our schools.
There is an obvious lack of consensus among islanders about the safety of returning kids to the classroom, as cases in King County remain at a high level and new studies confirm that the more contagious and lethal UK variant will soon predominate nation-wide. And since last week, Vashon has added six new cases of COVID-19.
More than a third of Chautauqua Elementary School parents have opted out of in-person education for their children; public comments sent to a recent school board meeting illustrate the deep divide. One letter, signed by 65 islanders, warned that a return to school could well put unvaccinated teachers in harm’s way, and urged better communication from VISD about safety protections in place in the schools.
Another long letter, from a McMurray Middle School teacher, also sounded alarms about teachers’ health and the health of their families amid the increased chance for community spread of the virus.
But other public comments from parents applauded the decision, pointing out, quite rightly, that children are suffering great harm from not being in school.
One of those letter-writers, though, made a point that we find simplistic.
“I know there are many parents that do not want kids back in the classroom and that is fine, they can stay online,” the author said.
Make no mistake: re-opening schools shouldn’t be framed as a matter of personal choice. It is a choice made for our entire community, which could bring both great rewards and great risks. And as schools re-open, we will all need to double down on tried and true precautions to stop the spread of the virus.
On Feb. 1, members of Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corp — a group of doctors with 100 combined years of expertise and experience in internal medicine, pediatrics, infectious disease, immunology and molecular diagnostics — presented a report to VISD, suggesting a range of mitigation strategies for re-opening schools. Their concerns, they said, were predicated on the lack of definitive, peer-reviewed data about how well children transmit the virus.
They said that youth ages 16 and younger have accounted for 15% of the cases the MRC has tracked and contact-traced on Vashon. Most of these cases were asymptomatic, they said, suggesting that re-opening schools carried with it an increased risk of viral spread that could go undetected for several weeks.
The doctors offered a range of mix-and-match mitigation strategies for VISD. These included waiting until school staff could be either fully or partially vaccinated, or waiting until all of Vashon’s elderly population was fully vaccinated.
These suggestions, clearly, aren’t being considered by VISD.
However, there is still time for the MRC’s other suggestions to be accepted, such as instituting a program of surveillance testing at the school.
They also recommended that returning staff, students and their parents sign a social contract, pledging to stay at home if any symptoms occur, to avoid multifamily gatherings, to eliminate travel for pleasure and to quarantine after essential travel before returning to school.
In a time of heightened anxiety on our island about re-opening schools, we think that having families discuss such a pledge around the dinner table, and then sign it together, would be an example of both great parenting and great community building.
The sacrifices described in this pledge are what have kept Vashon safe throughout the pandemic, and as schools re-open, they are now more important than ever for us all to follow, whether we have students in the district or not.