Holiday season poses possible risks
Methow Valley schools were the first in the county — and among the first in the state — to bring students into the classroom after months of shutdown during the COVID pandemic.
The school year started in such unfamiliar territory that people were understandably nervous about COVID, but rigorous precautions and small class sizes helped everyone feel comfortable, Methow Valley School District Nurse Adriana Vanbianchi said. “The happiness and joy — to be back together — felt palpable among teachers and students,” she said.
But Vanbianchi is concerned that in-person learning could be jeopardized if people let down their guard as we go into colder weather and the holiday season — and as cases break daily records across the country. COVID infections are rising across the state and “time is running out to reverse course and flatten the curve,” the state Department of Health (DOH) said in an “urgent” news briefing on Tuesday (Nov. 10).
The school has been following a meticulous approach to prevent COVID per DOH guidelines. Everyone in the school community must do a daily health screening for COVID symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose, or headache before coming to school.
The DOH guidelines dictate when someone should get a test or quarantine, and when to have students in a particular class learn remotely until a possible risk has passed. The strict precautions regarding symptoms have meant that both students and staff in the Methow have had to quarantine or show a negative COVID test before returning to school, Vanbianchi said.
If someone does get sick, the district has a plan to immediately isolate and contain an infection. To date, there have been no COVID cases among students or staff, Vanbianchi said.
The ventilation systems have been upgraded and there are air purifiers in every room. Windows stay open, even in cold and snow
Vanbianchi has been pleased to see how well even the youngest students are doing in following mandatory mask requirements.
“If we want our schools to stay open, there’s only so much mitigation the school can do. It’s up to the community to follow the guidelines put forth by the health department.”
– Methow Valley School District Nurse Adriana Vanbianchi
In addition, staff members are screened for COVID every two weeks, which provides data that can be extrapolated to the overall school community, Vanbianchi said.
Students who chose the hybrid model attend two days a week. Others are still doing entirely remote learning.
“There’s a lot of communication between parents, teachers, the clinic — it’s a lot of trust,” she said.
Despite these successes, Vanbianchi is nervous. “I feel like I’m going down a river, a little out of control. It feels like there are rapids up ahead,” she said. To Vanbianchi, those rapids represent cold and flu season and the upcoming holidays, with their traditional get-togethers and travel.
Worried county and state health public health officials are asking everyone to stay home and not give into the temptation to gather with friends and family outside their household for Thanksgiving and the winter holidays.
“We’re in a really good place, and we want to stay there,” said Jim Wallace, chief health officer for Family Health Centers. This summer, when cases were surging elsewhere in the county, people in the Methow did a good job of social distancing and masking — and kept infections low, he said.
The school district is proposing additional steps to protect the school community during the holiday season and after school breaks. If a student or immediate family members travel or attend large gatherings, the district suggests those students attend school remotely for the first week after the return from break.
To continue in-person school, everyone has to be extra-cautious, Wallace said. That becomes harder in the winter –and harder still around holidays — because people are accustomed to getting together, indoors, with friends and family, he said. Moreover, it can be easy to let your guard down when you’re with family or close friends, DOH said.
“If we want our schools to stay open, there’s only so much mitigation the school can do. It’s up to the community to follow the guidelines put forth by the health department,” Vanbianchi said.
If COVID cases spike in the Methow, there’s a risk that schools and businesses will have to close. That could also have repercussions for the tourist economy, Wallace said.
Some people think testing will protect them and their loved ones, but testing captures just a point in time, Vanbianchi said. Since the coronavirus can incubate for 14 days, there’s still a chance someone will become contagious over the course of a holiday visit. If people plan to travel to see family, what they really need to do to ensure they’re not infectious is quarantine for 14 days — both before and after a visit, she said.
The school district and public health officials are also proposing safer ways to observe the holidays, such as “remote” potlucks, where people drop off a dish with friends and then gathering via video chat, or getting together outdoors around a bonfire.
“We firmly believe that the successful reopening of our schools for in-person instruction, learning pods, clubs, activities, and athletics has been a product of our community’s careful planning, preparation, and implementation of the recommended strategies,” the district said in the proposed guidelines.
“It’s a big sacrifice for us all. I miss my mom and dad,” Vanbianchi said. “It takes a community to open the schools — and to keep them open.”