Back to school in the era of COVID | Editorial

For some parents, it’s a blessing and for some kids, it’s a curse. I’m talking about the beginning of the school year.

I look back fondly now, through nostalgia-tainted rose-colored glasses, at the days leading up to a school year and the first day in a new class. The fresh pens, notepads, binders and backpacks were always my favorite part. Now children stand masked in the entryways to institutions that have housed island youth for generations, looking forward to yet another school year permanently affected by the COVID pandemic.

March 2020 seems like an eternity ago at this point. It was when public schooling in the nation changed drastically from decades prior. Many schools were unsure of how to proceed — never in our lifetimes had any of us had to maneuver education amid a global pandemic. The last three months of the 2019-2020 school year were unlike any of us had seen before.

School districts and public health professionals across the nation then spent the summer planning how a return to classes in the fall would work. Then the time came and life had not returned to normal enough for kids to go back just yet. Almost one year after leaving the school halls, armed with masks and hand sanitizer, students began to trickle back into classes, but nothing was quite the same.

When a vaccine became available to citizens over the age of 16, we thought we saw a light at the end of the tunnel. However, the Delta variant had different plans for us. While island students have all begun to return to school, the threat of Delta — and any other variants waiting in the wings for their turn — has caused the brakes to be pumped once more — meaning students may once again have an unconventional school year.

The Orcas Island School District is offering “Screening for a Safe Start” after each major break in the school year. On Aug. 25, OISD School Board Directors tested 190 individuals in a four-hour period for COVID-19. All of the results were negative, just in time for a return to campus on Sept. 1. The school is also offering weekly Wednesday walk-in testing clinics from 3:30-5:30 p.m. for all students and OISD employees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masking and social distancing in school. Washington state has taken that a step further and is requiring masks in classes this year. Additionally, all teachers, coaches, bus drivers and school support staff and volunteers are required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face possible dismissal. According to Education Week, an independent news organization covering K-12 education, as of Sept. 1, 320 active teachers have died from COVID-19. At least 1,045 active and retired educators and personnel have died of the disease in total.

As we send some of the most vulnerable members of our community back to school, we all must do what we can to ensure their safety. The CDC lists the following suggestions for communities.

• Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.

• Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

• CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as screening testing.

• Screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.

As I wrote in March of this year, as students began to return to the empty hallways, it is imperative that those who work with children every day are properly protected against the virus — especially those who are at high risk of COVID complications.

We applaud the schools for their thoughtful, safety-oriented approach to welcoming students back to classrooms. And we feel immense pride for our island children for their resiliency and willingness to protect each other and our community. It is our sincerest hope that local districts can continue to provide in-person learning opportunities in the coming months.