Sultan High School students line up, social distanced, for one of the three temperature and wellness check stations in the gym before classes on Thursday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Sultan High School students line up, social distanced, for one of the three temperature and wellness check stations in the gym before classes on Thursday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Local report finds few COVID cases spread through classrooms

Of 285 COVID cases linked to Snohomish County schools since fall, 53 were traced to in-school transmission.

EVERETT — Since fall, there have been 285 COVID-19 cases in 201 schools and district administrative buildings in Snohomish County, according to Snohomish Health District data.

Of those, 53 cases and a dozen outbreaks can be linked to transmission within a school building, a state Department of Health report shows. The other cases linked to students and staff were not believed to be the result of transmission within the school setting.

An outbreak is defined as two or more cases that are epidemiologically linked. Those who test positive must experience symptoms within two weeks of each other, and they must not share a household or have been in close contact with each other outside of school.

“With several thousand students, staff and teachers having returned to the classroom at least part-time, this report shows that the prevention and intervention measures are working,” Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Spitters said in a Friday news release. “Our schools have been working hard to make the classroom as safe as possible. I hope the community keeps masking up and physically distancing so trends continue decreasing in order for more middle and high school students can resume in-person learning.”

Statewide, health officials have reported 84 outbreaks in schools, zero hospitalizations and zero deaths.

Cases in classrooms were at their highest in late November and early December — when the state was experiencing the peak of the virus’ third wave. Data from early January show fewer outbreaks.

A student walks from the school bus to the high school on Thursday in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A student walks from the school bus to the high school on Thursday in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“There’s encouraging news here,” senior epidemiologist Laura Newman said in a news release. “We are seeing fairly low levels of COVID-19 transmission within school settings so far. The majority of … outbreaks in schools involve three or fewer cases, and school administrators, teachers, and staff are doing a good job of implementing preventative measures that limit the spread of COVID-19.”

For months, state leaders and public health experts have said districts can safely resume some in-person learning as long as they follow safety protocols such as wearing masks and dividing students into cohort groups — and if community transmission is at stable levels.

That includes districts in Snohomish County, Spitters said Tuesday.

“We continue to encourage schools to gradually, slowly, incrementally return kids to cohorted hybrid,” he said during a media briefing.

In addition to the state report, the federal Centers for Disease Control on Friday updated guidelines for reopening schools and urged districts to consider doing so quickly.

Students line up, social distanced, before entering Sultan High School on Thursday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Students line up, social distanced, before entering Sultan High School on Thursday. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The two most critical safety measures, the document says, are masks and social distancing. Other essential protocols are hand washing, cleaning and contact tracing.

Additionally, students should be given an option to continue with remote learning.

Across Snohomish County, a dozen school districts have already phased some students into the classroom.

Some, like Everett Public Schools, are just now resuming in-person learning for the youngest students.

In Sultan, meanwhile, the school district has progressed from the elementary and middle school phases to welcoming ninth- and 12th-graders back to the high school campus.

“We have gained confidence that if you do some of the very basic things, and you do them well, then you’re pretty safe,” Sultan Superintendent Dan Chaplik said.

Throughout the year, there have been positive cases at schools, he said, but no evidence of transmission within a classroom.

Students approach a checkpoint where they must fill out a wellness survey before having their temperatures checked at Sultan High School. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Students approach a checkpoint where they must fill out a wellness survey before having their temperatures checked at Sultan High School. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The same goes for private Archbishop Murphy High School in south Everett, which launched a full hybrid model in January with up to 200 students on the campus each day.

When students are home, they’re streaming lessons live from the classroom.

The high school’s phased reopening started in September, with cohorts of freshmen returning for in-person learning.

“I’m happy to report that things are still going well,” Principal Alicia Mitchell said.

So far, there have been two incidents of people on the Archbishop Murphy campus with COVID.

One was a maintenance worker at the school after hours. Another was a student with COVID who was in class for one day.

Administrators didn’t learn of the second case until months afterward, Mitchell said.

The school then worked with the health district to trace contacts and found no evidence of transmission, she said.

Students sit social distanced, with sanitizing wipes within reach, during a social sciences class on Thursday in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Students sit social distanced, with sanitizing wipes within reach, during a social sciences class on Thursday in Sultan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Among public schools, the Edmonds, Mukilteo and Northshore districts mostly have not resumed in-classroom teaching, although each is providing limited in-person instruction for students participating in special education programs and specialized programs. In each, negotiations on how to reopen safely are not concluded.

The recent push to get kids back in the classroom comes as states work to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

Nationwide, some teachers unions have argued that educators should be vaccinated prior to returning to work.

Teachers should be prioritized, along with other essential workers, the federal guidance says. But “access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”

In Washington, educators of all ages are included in the state’s 1B tier — eligible to get the vaccine alongside health care workers; residents and staff at long-term care homes; anyone over 65; and those 50 and older who live in certain multigenerational homes.

The approach prioritizes protecting the hospital system and getting doses to those who would be most likely to die from COVID-19.

In the past two months, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal, some teachers unions and a few lawmakers have called on Gov. Jay Inslee to move teachers up in the queue.

That’s not going to happen, the governor has said.

A student walks to class on Thursday at Sultan High School. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A student walks to class on Thursday at Sultan High School. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The state’s rollout has already been slower than hoped. Supply of the vaccine remains a pinch-point issue.

“There’s a mathematical equation here we have to face,” Inslee said during a late-January news conference. “Every teacher that is vaccinated today means one less 80-, 90-, 100-, 70-, 65-year-old person doesn’t get a vaccine. … I just do not believe that 25-year-old teachers think they should be getting in line ahead of their 80-year-old grandparents.”

For the Sultan School District, Chaplik said, waiting to get all staff vaccinated could push reopening back to next fall.

The need to get students back in the classroom is too great to wait that long, he said.

Educators across the state are doing their best to provide functional remote learning, Chaplik added, “but it’s not working for most.”

“Kids interacting with one another around the learning process, in a classroom with a great teacher, can’t be replicated,” he said.

So the district forged ahead, with some teachers opting to stay home due to health concerns.

Last week, when older students returned, it also meant the resumption of some high school sports.

During one of the first football practices, Chaplik approached the team.

“Thank you for your willingness to do this,” he said, “because life looks so much more normal.”

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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