Key to communication as South Seattle schools report disproportionate COVID-19 cases

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by Ari Robin McKenna


With public school students back in person for the second week in a wave of the delta variant, parents and guardians await crucial and timely information from their school or district in case there are cases of COVID- 19 in their child’s school. This information helps parents and guardians keep their children safe and take precautions that impact collective safety. In south Seattle and southwest King County – where the majority of the county’s people of color live and where higher rates of COVID-19 cases have persisted throughout the pandemic – clear communication, transparent and efficient becomes even more crucial. In these historically underfunded communities, many doubts remain about current communication during this delta stage of the pandemic.

When Seattle Public Schools (SPS) updated their COVID-19 dashboard Monday night for last school week, they reported 44 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at their 104 schools and other educational sites. Ten of those cases were in the Northwest and Northeast Districts, and 24 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the Southwest and Southeast Districts. This despite the fact that the total number of students is actually 2,984 higher in the north. While this week one data set is tiny, it does adhere to the norms of the big picture: Seattle-wide parents and guardians anxiously sent their kids to school on day one, and perhaps predictably, more than double the South Fin fell ill.

To put the disparate current infection rates into perspective, a look at the current geographic stub of King County’s “COVID-19 Outbreak Summary Dashboard” on September 8 shows that all reporting areas the highest are in the southwest corner of the county map. Central Federal Way, SeaTac / Tukwila and South Auburn have the highest COVID-19 positive case rates in the county per 100,000 population at 11,224.4, 11,328.6 and 12,843.1 respectively. Meanwhile, on the other hand, the whiter neighborhoods in North Seattle have some of the lowest rates in the county, such as Ballard, Fremont / Green Lake, and Northeast Seattle, which are 2,996.1, respectively. 2,958.3 and 3,693.8.

Likewise, the SPS dashboard indicates a continuation of this trend that neighborhoods in southern Seattle are hit the hardest. Unfortunately, unlike other King County school districts, the dashboard does not show parents which schools the outbreaks have occurred at. Of King County’s 20 school districts, 15 share school-specific information with their families. In southwest King County, where rates are highest, Highline Public Schools, Renton School District, Kent School District, Federal Way Public Schools, Auburn School District, and Fife Public Schools aggregate all of their data by school, providing another layer of transparency. Only Tukwila School District (TSD) and SPS did not follow suit.

TSD, which is the smallest public school district in the region with only 5 schools, did not respond to the emeraldrequest for explanations. Their COVID-19 page links up King County dashboards and features a video of district nurse Hannah Maestro explaining safety measures to parents.

SPS District spokesperson Tim Robinson told the emerald that SPS does not currently aggregate COVID-19 data by school to protect student privacy. “The fundamental reason for not including this level of data was an abundance of care to preserve anonymity,” he said. However, Robinson said SPS would change its dashboard “to show data at the school level” at some point. Although he did not specify a day when the data would be available, Robinson assured: “It is imminent.”

Currently, known cases in South Seattle include a case at Chief Sealth International High School, which caused their Friday football game against Foster High School to be canceled. Garfield High School recently emailed families about the confirmed cases, choosing to notify all families in their school to “respond to the anxiety our students and families may be feeling.” Aki Kurose Middle School also announced a confirmed case in an email from the principal on Monday afternoon, choosing to contact only families of sixth-graders.

Aki Kurose’s email to sixth-grade families read, “The Seattle Public Schools Central COVID Team has not identified anyone who has come into close contact with this person.” The emerald spoke with Rosalva Sanchez, parent of an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Aki Kurose, who was left with many questions. She said, “A lot of parents were very scared, I’m still scared. When Sanchez received the email after school hours, she said, “I didn’t know what to do. What should I do? What’s the right thing to do? How can I go about this?

Sanchez believes the school email didn’t communicate clearly and left important things unsaid. “I would like to know, not exactly who is, but when was my child exposed, if it was exposed at all. I would like to know the date. This way I can find myself… If my child was sick. If it was last week. If it was this week… I want to know: ‘Was it like last week that the child was in school? What precautions should I take so that I can take this first step for my family as well? “

“Close contact” is defined by the Department of Health (DOH) K-12 COVID-19 requirements (and referenced in the Aki Kurose letter) as follows:

“Typically, close contact is someone who has been within six feet of a person with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes cumulatively over a 24-hour period during the time that the person with COVID- 19 was contagious. The infectious period of a person with COVID-19 begins two days before the onset of symptoms or is estimated to be two days before the date of collection of the positive test if a person with COVID-19 is asymptomatic … In a room indoor class K-12, the definition of close contact excludes students who were at least three feet from an infected student when (a) both students were wearing face covers / masks and (b) other prevention strategies were in place. This exception does not apply to teachers, staff or other adults in the indoor classroom. ”

Recently, at a college in Kirkland, two confirmed cases led dozens of students to self-quarantine. But in the case of Aki Kurose, Sanchez maintains, “We had no close contact information.”

Because she has two younger children at home, Sanchez asked her sixth-grader to stay in a bathroom that their family had long designated as a quarantine room, if one of them was exposed. . It was their family’s first exposure since the start of the pandemic. His son, “He dined alone, poor child.”

The next morning, Sanchez called Aki Kurose’s office after checking his son’s temperature and seeing if he had any other symptoms. She wanted to know if she needed to get him tested and if she should bring him to school. After being briefly put on hold, a secretary for Aki Kurose told her that the contact tracing had been carried out by the COVID Central team and that her child would not have been in contact with the child.

When asked for his final thoughts on how schools should communicate with parents during these difficult days, Sanchez responded with absolute certainty, “I am a parent and I need more. I have to ensure the safety of my children.


Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and program developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before moving to South Seattle. He writes about education for the emerald. Contact him here.

?? Featured Image: After schools closed in March 2020, a community member walks the trail outside Franklin High School in south Seattle. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

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