Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of commentaries by Renee Henson addressing inequities and shortcomings of distance learning models. In this column, Hanson advocates for outdoor education for island youth.
Because of the inaction of our federal government in response to the pandemic, we are left weighing difficult options when it comes to school in the fall.
There is justified fear from parents and educators alike. This virus can be deadly. But we must hold two truths together: that COVID is serious, and that our own island is far from being a hot-bed of transmission. We need a plan that takes into consideration the low rate of transmission we’ve had on Vashon.
According to the newest Department of Health guidelines, counties in Washington must reach 24 cases per 100,000 people over a two week time period in order to reopen schools. And while King County as a whole has yet to hit that benchmark, Jennifer Gogarten, a lecturer in the biostatistics department of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington and a mother of four here on Vashon, calculated the numbers for our island.
She ran the numbers to see if we were meeting targets if Vashon were being considered as an independent entity. Here’s what she had to say:
“We’ve had 11 total cases since we started testing in March. (There were actually 12 positive tests but one was determined to be a false positive upon retesting. There have been at least three other reported cases among non-island residents who work on Vashon and they are also not included in the total.)
“The 11 reported cases have been spread out: two in March, two in April, zero in May, three in June, three in July, and one in August, so far.
“Trying to draw a most pessimistic window to calculate the worst test statistic for Vashon, it would be spanning July 27, July 30, August 2 where we reached 3 cases in a 14-day window.
“We’re still waiting on the 2020 census for an accurate population count, but a 2016 Seattle Times profile of the island estimated that ‘the island has only about 12,000 people, swelling by a few thousand in the summer.’ The president of the Chamber of Commerce more recently suggested that a typical summer population could be closer to 20-25,000 including the number of summer vacation renters and second homeowners.
“If we make the most conservative estimate based on 12,000 year-round residents, our worst fortnight would be 25 cases/100k: right at the boundary to ‘moderate.’ If we assume a population any bigger or if we consider any other window of time (such as the last 14 days), our island rate instead falls into the ‘low’ category.
“The other factors in a new Department of Health ‘decision tree’ are also encouraging: we have had less than 1 percent of tests being positive, whereas the DOH suggests exceeding 5 percent positivity would be cause for concern. As such, applying our island-wide statistics to the DOH decision making tree would ‘encourage full-time in-person learning for all elementary students and hybrid learning for middle and high school.’ “
There are a few outdoor summer camps on the island that have operated all summer. We know that being outdoors greatly diminishes the risk of contracting the virus, and when that is paired with the safety measures the schools have already committed to (mask-wearing, social distancing, temperature taking, and cleaning measures), we could potentially find a sweet spot of optimal safety. Though, we should keep in mind that there is no risk-free option while we wait for a vaccine or an effective treatment.
Many island families have already sought out outdoor options through the sibling program at Starbreak Preschool, Vashon Kids, and the potential new program at Camp Sealth. While I am grateful for these options which my family may participate in, I am deeply troubled that we are pushing the responsibility of educating our children off on preschool teachers and camp counselors out of necessity, when our teachers are essential workers in the truest sense. This is also perpetuating a system where those with money and resources are able to secure the services they need while others are shut out.
We want community organizations and preschools to step in and be the surrogates for educators, but what we need is the expertise of professionals — especially for special needs students like my son who is autistic and has an auditory processing disorder. Matching visuals with words and deriving meaning is especially difficult for him, so learning online has been overwhelming at times. He needs in-person education. Our elementary-aged ELL (English Language Learners) students face similar challenges as they rely on parents for whom technology and language barriers make it difficult to learn and complete assignments.
According to the New York Times: “A review of 7,000 cases in China recorded only one instance of fresh-air transmission.” The Times also reported that a study funded by the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development “found that the odds of catching the coronavirus are nearly 20 times higher indoors than outdoors.” This is the moment when teachers should be refusing to meet in the school building, and demanding raises and hazard pay. But what we cannot do is be content delivering an ineffective education to children who already struggle.
I support the expansion of outdoor education space at Chautauqua Elementary School, as is being currently explored by the school district in partnership with the Emergency Operations Center. Ideally, such outdoor spaces could serve all our students with the most needs — small groups of special needs students, ELL students, students with IEPs, and students who for whatever reason were unable to participate in the online program in the spring. They could be taught by teachers who were willing to pioneer the program.
When we are able, we should consider expanding outdoor learning incrementally from this starting point.
We would have to be committed to keeping it as simple as possible. Using the outdoors to teach subjects like science and physical education, and creating open-air structures to teach literacy, math, and social sciences while sprinkling in ample time for play and socialization. There would be many obstacles to overcome, but none that would be insurmountable with a strong partnership between teachers, families, and administrators, boosted by community support and funding.
Outdoor schooling programs like these popped up in cities like New York and Chicago during the tuberculosis pandemic of the early 1900s, why not try our own program here on Vashon?
Renee Henson lives on Vashon with her husband and four children. She has a professional background in non-profit public relations and development.