On lessons not learned by our school district

It’s hypocritical for the district to claim to care so much about its students while showing a lack of regard for their older family members, friends and teachers.

Last week, the education of island youth at Vashon High School was severely disrupted by an outbreak of COVID following a Vashon High School (VHS) dance. (See page 1.)

Approximately three dozen students and staff are known to have contracted COVID infections following the dance, including the school’s interim principal, John Erickson, as well as its assistant principal, Sabrina Kovacs — both still in their first weeks in their positions.

By last Thursday, the outbreak resulted in a recommendation, by Public Health — Seattle & King County (PHSKC), for the district to reinstate masking for everyone at VHS for two weeks, given that more than 10% of the 240 students who attended the dance had, at that time, tested positive for the virus.

For the students who got COVID, learning was interrupted because they were home sick. That doesn’t count the mental stress those kids might have felt while quarantining at home during their illnesses so as not to infect their families and fellow students.

Teachers were stressed, too, as they navigated the shift back to classroom masking — perhaps worrying that they too, would contract COVID and take it home to their families.

We’ve been here before.

COVID cases at the high school also skyrocketed a year ago following the prom dance in May of 2022, and PHSKC strongly recommended required masking at the school back then, as well.

Shouldn’t last year’s prom have been a lesson in best practices for future dances?

The district could have learned from the previous experience and taken simple basic steps to mitigate the potential for an outbreak — especially given Vashon’s current elevated risk status for the virus.

But did the district take preventive steps? The answer is no.

Instead, the district showed poor leadership, and a worrisome lack of concern for the broader community in not at least suggesting that students test prior to attending the dance, or consider masking during it.

According to The Beachcomber’s reporting, that messaging was never included in any school communications leading up to the dance. Why? According to Superintendent Slade McSheehy, such messaging is not required by PHSKC.

To be clear, we are not saying masking or testing should have been required for the dance, or, in fact, that joyful gatherings are not possible these days.

Last weekend, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue held its annual banquet, attended by about 100 people. In advance of the dinner, it was recommended, though not required, for attendees to test, said Fire Chief Matt Vinci. And at the dinner, rapid tests and masks were also made available to guests who wanted them.

Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA) — the venue where the school dance was held — also posts prominent signage on its doors reminding its patrons that masks are recommended, though not required, during this time of elevated transmission of COVID in the community.

VHS students might have seen these signs, too, entering the dance, though perhaps by that point the message was too late.

Since early December, VashonBePrepared has also made similar recommendations to the entire, pandemic-weary community — to test before gathering and mask in indoor public places — given the current level of transmission.

VashonBePrepared’s team keeps repeating these recommendations not because anyone requires them to do so, but rather, because they care about the community.

VISD’s leadership does not seem to share that same community-mindedness.

Furthermore, it is appalling that the superintendent did not reach out to VCA as the outbreak began to unfold.

VCA’s executive director told The Beachcomber that neither she nor VCA’s event manager, who was in charge of the VISD’s rental of the space for the dance, received a call from the district alerting VCA to the outbreak. As it turned out, the event manager, who worked at VCA during the dance, had also tested positive for COVID in the days after the dance.

Many of us on Vashon have now had COVID, and know the drill when it happens to us personally: we reach out to those we were in close contact with and alert them to their risk. This is not only a smart thing to do, for public health reasons; we also do it out of common decency.

But when asked by The Beachcomber why the district hadn’t been in closer touch with VCA about the outbreak, McSheehy once again said that the district was not required to do so by PHSKC.

It is disheartening to have to report this story, three years into our community’s COVID journey.

We recommend that the School Board ask McSheehy to explain why he decided to do the minimum he could to protect student and community safety, and not take the trivial step of suggesting that students test before the dance and consider masking — if for no other reason that it might have helped prevent the disruption of the past week at VHS.

The Board should also remind McSheehy that the school district sits smack in the middle of a vulnerable, aging population — and that what happens at the school doesn’t stay in the school.

COVID is still the third leading cause of death in America, with its most serious impacts of hospitalization and death in those who are 65 and older. Demographically, Vashon is one of the oldest places in King County, with half of its residents over the age of 54.

In the past two weeks, The Beachcomber has published news obituaries of well-known elderly people — one who died on Vashon and one who died in Utah — who during their lifetimes made enormous contributions to our community. Their relatives told us that COVID had been a factor in their deaths.

It’s hypocritical for the district to claim to care so much about its students while showing such a lack of regard for their older family members, friends and teachers.