Whatcom County school districts fighting battle with COVID to keep students in classrooms

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Like many other school districts around the Whatcom County, the state and the nation, Bellingham Public Schools is fighting a battle to keep its doors open and students in its classrooms against escalating COVID-19 case numbers spurred by the omicron variant.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to avoid switching to remote learning, unless we are ordered to by an authority like the governor or the health department,” school district spokesperson Dana Smith told The Bellingham Herald in an email. “We know kids learn best in person, and that schools are much more than just about learning: they are a key part of the system that helps keep our community working smoothly.

“We have been working on contingency plans, of course, because COVID has shown us again and again to expect the unexpected, but we have no plans to return to remote learning.”

One of those plans, Smith said, was spurred by the Bellingham community’s desire to also keep area schools open.

On Wednesday, Jan. 12, the district sent a letter encouraging community members to consider applying to become substitute teachers or become school volunteers.

“Our district is dedicated to keeping schools open and operational, and we are aware of labor shortages impacting many industries, including education,” the district’s letter read. “Being a substitute offers flexibility and helps support our schools, staff and Bellingham’s children in fulfilling The Bellingham Promise.”

The idea to ask for community help was born both out of necessity and a desire to take advantage of the community’s willingness to help.

“Like most industries, we’ve been experiencing staffing shortages all year, especially for substitute paraeducators, bus drivers, custodians, and food service staff,” Smith wrote. “And since returning from winter break, we’re seeing more folks out with illness, likely due to the Omicron surge.

“We also have had parents and other community members reach out to us asking, ‘How can I help? I want schools to stay open!’ Because our biggest need is for substitutes, we decided to reach out to our community to build up our list of those able to work in our schools, and to capitalize on the energy in our community to work together to help keep schools open.”

Students enter the newly built Parkview Elementary School Sept. 1, 2021, in Bellingham. With students back in person as COVID-19 surges, Washington state has mandated that masks are required for all and adults are required to have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Students enter the newly built Parkview Elementary School Sept. 1, 2021, in Bellingham. With students back in person as COVID-19 surges, Washington state has mandated that masks are required for all and adults are required to have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

‘All hands on deck situation’

Bellingham is not alone in its desire to keep students in their buildings rather than trying to teach them at home remotely.

Every school district in Whatcom County is walking the very same line.

And it hasn’t been easy.

According to a Jan. 7 letter from Blaine School District Superintendent Christopher Granger, at points during the week of Jan. 3-7, the Blaine School District had:

25% of its custodial staff out.

Every staff member with a proper license operating school buses.

30% of campus administration out.

Every school building had multiple staff members out after either testing positive for COVID or awaiting test results.

A high of 16.4% of all district students out.

85 pending PCR tests for staff and results.

“Anytime a campus is over a 10% absence rate we are to collaborate with the health department, as in the past with NoroVirus and Chicken Pox situations prior to COVID,” Granger wrote. “We will continue to work in collaboration with the Whatcom County Health Department on impacts to school operations caused by COVID cases or outbreaks.

“It remains our goal to operate in-person learning and we will maintain that focus, but there is a possibility that individual classrooms, grade levels, buildings or a district wide move to remote learning may be required based on case numbers and staffing capacity.”

Granger called it an “all hands on deck situation” and also called on the community to consider stepping up to help the district’s students.

A Jan. 12 letter from Mount Baker School District Mary Sewright said that it has had to temporarily close a few classrooms and return those students to remote learning due to COVID cases.

“An entire school going remote would be a last resort because of lack of staffing. We hope this does not happen, but we are prepared if needed,” Sewright wrote.

The Meridian School District also had to move to remote learning from Jan. 5-7, but it was able to return to in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 10.

“Meridian School District has been faced with the same challenges as other school districts locally and nationally with staffing shortages and the increase of COVID-19 transmission in our community has made operating our schools even more difficult,” Meridian Superintendent James Everett wrote in a Jan. 4 letter about the decision to go remote, adding that the forecast for snow that week also factored into the decision. “We’ve also seen an impact on student attendance this week. With the added complexity of limited testing available in our community, staff and students are having to remain home.”

Additionally, all Whatcom County school districts are working overtime to make sure families are notified if students come in contact with another student or staff member who tests positive for COVID.

“Given the number of cases, we do not have time to send out general letters stating there is a positive case in a school,” Sewright wrote. “You can assume there are positive cases at every school right now and check our MBSD COVID-19 Dashboard for weekly updates.”

Case numbers are up

Cases have been up in schools since the return from winter break, as numbers reported on the school district dashboards have mirrored what’s been seen in Whatcom County as a whole. As of Friday, Jan. 14:

Bellingham Public School’s COVID dashboard reported 269 cases during the first two weeks of 2022, or approximately 22.3 cases per 1,000 students. Those included 157 cases in a possible exposure window the week of Jan. 3 to 7 and 112 cases that had a possible exposure window the week of Jan. 8-14. In the three-plus months before winter break, the school district reported just 180 cases.

The Meridian School District’s COVID dashboard reported 36 cases, or approximately 19.7 cases per 1,000 students, with a possible exposure window the week of Jan. 3-7. In the three-plus months before winter break, the school district reported 90 cases.

The Nooksack Valley School District’s COVID dashboard reported 27 cases, or approximately 13.6 cases per 1,000 students, with a possible exposure window the week of Jan. 3-7, though the dashboard noted that no reports were made from Nooksack Valley High, which had remote learning the first week of 2022. Between Oct. 31 and Dec. 18, the school district reported 44 cases.

The Ferndale School District’s COVID dashboard reported that had 90 cases reported in the past week, or approximately 16.6 per 1,000 students. Of those 90, 38 had been on campus within two days of symptom onset or a positive test. Its weekly high for cases in a week during the fall was 19 cases reported on Oct. 14.

The COVID dashboards for Lynden, Meridian and Mount Baker school district had not been updated to include any new cases since classes resumed after the winter break as of Friday.

The state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has asked all districts to have remote learning plans, Bellingham Superintendent Greg Baker wrote in a letter to families sent out Monday, adding “but our primary goal is to keep schools open, as we know that our students are better served in person.”

Baker also added that state Superintendent Chris Reykdal has said the state is not expecting to make statewide closures, as it did in 2020 during earlier stages of the pandemic.

“We will continue to plan in case remote learning is temporarily needed for a class or a school, but at this time we are not going fully remote,” Baker wrote. “We will continue to take weather, COVID and other challenges day-by-day, so thank you as always for your patience and understanding.”

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