A community member walks at the track outside of Franklin High School in South Seattle.

Communication Key as South Seattle Schools Reporting Disproportionate COVID-19 Cases

by Ari Robin McKenna

With public school students back learning in-person for the second week during a delta variant surge, parents and guardians await crucial, timely information from their school or district in the event there are COVID-19 cases at their child’s school. Such information helps parents and guardians keep their kids safe and take precautions that impact collective safety. In South Seattle and southwest King County — where the majority of People of Color in the county live and where higher COVID-19 case rates have persisted throughout the pandemic — clear, transparent, effective communication becomes even more crucial. In these historically under-resourced communities, plenty of doubts remain about current communication during this delta stage of the pandemic.

When Seattle Public Schools (SPS) refreshed their COVID-19 dashboard on Monday evening for last school week, they reported 44 confirmed COVID-19 cases within their 104 schools and other educational sites. Ten of those cases were in the northwest and northeast districts, and 24 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the southwest and southeast districts. This is despite the total number of students actually being 2,984 higher in the north. Though this week-one data set is minuscule, it accedes to the norms of the bigger picture: Seattle-wide, parents and guardians anxiously sent their kids to school on the first day, and perhaps predictably, more than twice as many from the South End have gotten sick.

To put the disparate current infection rates in perspective, a glance at the current King County “Daily COVID-19 outbreak summary dashboard” geography stub on Sept. 8 shows all of the highest reporting areas to be in the southwest corner of the county map. Central Federal Way, SeaTac/Tukwila, and South Auburn have the county’s highest COVID-19 positive case rates per 100,000 residents at 11,224.4, 11,328.6, and 12,843.1 respectively. Meanwhile, by contrast, whiter north Seattle neighborhoods have some of the county’s lowest rates, such as Ballard, Fremont/Green Lake, and northeast Seattle, which are at 2,996.1, 2,958.3, and 3,693.8 respectively.

Similarly, SPS’s dashboard indicates the continuation of this trend of South Seattle neighborhoods being hardest hit. Unfortunately, unlike other King County School districts, the dashboard does not show parents which schools outbreaks occurred at. Out of the 20 school districts in King County, 15 are sharing 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 all aggregate 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 reply to the Emerald’s request for an explanation. Their COVID-19 page links the 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 is not currently aggregating COVID-19 data by school to protect student privacy. “The basic reason for not including that level of data was an abundance of care to preserve anonymity,” he said. However, Robinson said that SPS will be modifying their dashboard “to show school-level data” at some point. Though he didn’t specify a day said data would be available, Robinson assured, “It’s imminent.”

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

Aki Kurose’s email to sixth grade families read, “The Seattle Public Schools COVID Central team did not identify any individuals who came in close contact with this person.” The Emerald spoke with Rosalba 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 afraid, I’m still afraid.” 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 do I approach this?”

Sanchez feels the school email did not communicate clearly and left important things unsaid. “I would like to know, not exactly who is the case, but when was my kid exposed, if he was exposed at all. I would like to know the date. That way I can trace myself … If my kid was sick. If it was last week. If it was this week … I want to know, ‘Was it like last week that the kid was in school? What are the precautions, so I can take that first step for my family as well?’”

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

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

Recently, at a middle school in Kirkland, a pair of confirmed cases lead to dozens of students being told to quarantine. But in the case of Aki Kurose, Sanchez maintains, “We haven’t had any close contact information.”

Because she has two younger kids in the house, Sanchez instructed her sixth grader to stay in a bathroom their family had long designated as the quarantine room, should any of them be exposed. This was their family’s first exposure since the pandemic began. Her son, “He ate dinner alone, poor kid.”

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

Asked her final thoughts about how schools should be communicating with parents during these trying delta days, Sanchez replied with dead certainty, “I’m a parent and I need more. I need to keep my kids safe.”

Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Rosalba Sanchez’s name as “Rosalva”. This article was updated on 09/10/2021 with the correct spelling.

📸 Featured Image: Following school closures in March 2020, a community member walks at the track outside of Franklin High School in South Seattle. (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)

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