Two schools, two different responses to COVID outbreaks

Madrona K-8 school. (Photos courtesy Edmonds School District)

When 26 students contracted COVID-19 at Edmonds-based Madrona K-8 school this month and another 174 were tagged as “close contacts,” Madrona shut down for two weeks. But at the same time, when a dozen students at Edmonds-Woodway High got COVID and 246 others were labelled as close contacts, the high school did not shut down.

Edmonds-Woodway High School

Why not close the high school? What are the Edmonds School District’s guidelines for handling coronavirus outbreaks in each school? How do administrators explain the different responses?

We took those questions to the district’s schools program manager for student health, Mara Marano-Bianca. In a Zoom interview, she told us, “it’s not just a black-and-white thing, like this is the number of cases; we really need to look at how the disease is spreading within each school environment, each situation.”

Mara Marano-Bianca

Marano-Bianca is a registered nurse, has a masters in nursing education and is certified in public health. She has been with the Edmonds district for five years and spearheads the district’s COVID-19 response.

At Madrona, she told us, there “were more widespread cases, not contained to one or two classrooms; it was widespread across the building.” Marano-Bianca added, “we had cases from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade, in every classroom, in every center.” Students who tested positive and those quarantined, accounted for almost a quarter of all students at Madrona. The district consulted with the Snohomish Health District and made the decision to close Madrona until Nov. 1 to get the outbreak under control.

On Oct. 22, Edmonds-Woodway High School Principal Allison Larsen sent an email that included the following:

I am emailing today to bring you difficult news regarding the EWHS Football Program.

Due to multiple COVID-19 cases associated with the varsity/JV football program, the Snohomish County Health District indicated we must halt football activity for the next 14 days.

At Edmonds-Woodway, football players provided the spark for the outbreak, with 10 of the 13 cases tied to the team. “It was extremely isolated to football,” said Marano-Bianca, “it’s a formula for spreading (COVID).” It had not spread to other classroom settings.

There is another significant difference at the high school — 80% of the students are vaccinated, the district reports. At Madrona K-8, only those sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — ages 12 and older — would have been eligible for the vaccine. When the school district did contact tracing at the high school, it found that of the 246 students suspected of close contact, many were fully vaccinated and were asymptomatic, said Marano-Bianca. That is why Edmonds-Woodway did not close. The school did cancel the Oct. 22 homecoming football game and all homecoming activities.

The district’s other three high schools — Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood and Meadowdale — have not had football-related outbreaks this month. District data shows that Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace did not report any coronavirus cases for the week of Oct. 16-22the same time that Edmonds-Woodway spiked. “I can’t tell you if there was something externally that helped lead to this (at Edmonds-Woodway),” Marano-Bianca said, “maybe something happened out of school that helped support the spread.”

The district does test all athletes in high-contact sports such as football and basketball twice a week and before each game. Testing is how Edmonds Woodway discovered most of its current cases related to the team. Everyone on the football sidelines has been required to mask up since practice began. There was a spike in cases at the beginning of the season and the district says it pushed hard on masking. There are no other changes to COVID precautions at its high schools.

Madrona, says, Marano-Bianca, is ready to reopen on Monday, with new procedures in place to try to avoid another outbreak. Elementary students there usually move between teaching “centers” depending on the subject. From now on, only teachers will move between centers to try to reduce unnecessary contact. Other precautions include:

  • Seventh and eighth graders will sanitize their chairs and tables.
  • All students will wipe down any shared supplies.
  • More hand sanitizing stations will be installed.
  • High-contact areas will see more cleaning.
  • Classes will also have scheduled hand-washing times throughout the day.
  • Madrona will reduce the number of students at each recess and expand social distancing outside zones.
  • Additional classified staff will be hired to provide more supervision.
  • In the lunchroom, all students will remain seated until they are allowed to leave their area.

The statewide goal has been to keep all children in class – safely. Marano-Bianca said that teachers statewide have seen an increase in student anxiety and depression and recognize delays in growth and development in some students. She said that both the State Department of Health and the school district believe the emotional and health risks of keeping kids out of class are greater than keeping them in school. The district has added one social worker to each of the high schools, funded through the Snohomish Health District.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has more COVID information for parents and school-age children here.

When the vaccine becomes available for those ages 5-11 years old – possibly as soon as next week — Marano-Bianca urges parents to get their children the shots. “It’s the best tool for preventing exposure for children and youth and reduces severe symptoms and possible hospitalization,” she said. The district is “ready and willing,” says Communications Director Harmony Weinberg, to host one or more vaccine clinics for children. The school district and health district are discussing how to do that. The possibility of school-based vaccine clinics will depend on how many doses are available; the state has said to expect between 200,000 -300,000 doses statewide in the first shipment.

With 21,000 students and 3,800 staff, Edmonds is the county’s largest school district. There will be more coronavirus cases in Edmonds schools; that is part of the reality of the pandemic. Marano-Bianca says she understands parent and student apprehension and any confusion about COVID responses in the classroom. But she believes the district has built trust in the community and is doing “really well and we’re working collaboratively with our families, students and staff.”

— By Bob Throndsen

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