Return from winter break has some school districts ramping up COVID-19 testing, vaccine efforts

As students and staff return from winter break, concerns of the Omicron variant spreading has schools ramping up COVID-19 safety measures. 

Some districts throughout western Washington are offering testing and vaccine clinics to help reduce the spread and keep classrooms open.

Washington State Department of Health reported that 77.6% of people ages five and older have at least one dose, and 70.6% are fully vaccinated as of Jan. 3. 

"But that drops to about 65% for our high school kids, about 55% for middle schoolers and only about 30% for our elementary school students. So, we’ve got a long ways to go. It’s the very best thing parents can do at this point," said Chris Reykdal, the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Doctors said pediatric vaccine numbers are encouraging, but said more kids need to get their shots as the COVID positivity rate is rapidly increasing across the region.

"The trouble is that it’s very difficult to distinguish cold symptoms, flu symptoms and COVID. You can’t. So, we need to be testing when that’s the case. I am very glad that many of the schools are offering free testing right now," said Dr. Beth Ebel with UW Medicine Department of Pediatrics.

Public Health-Seattle & King County said it "supports the continuation of in-person learning to the extent possible paired with robust prevention measures." 

RELATED: Local school districts plans for possibility of remote learning in January due to Omicron

Health officials encouraged districts to utilize rapid testing, when possible, for returning to school. The health department said, "Schools should be aware that PCR testing in the community is not going to be an option for many families. Community testing sites will not be sufficient to meet the need of the over 340,000 families in schools in King County. Families should check with their school for information on accessing testing."

Reykdal said remote learning will not be a statewide mandate. However, he said should the number of COVID cases continue to climb, he anticipates some classrooms or schools may have to learn from home temporarily.

"If it has to happen it’s because local public health has been involved or we have such shortage of educators that we can’t open a building. And it would be for a very short duration," said Reykdal.

To help keep classes open, districts have been ramping up COVID-19 safety measures. For example, Seattle Public Schools is collecting data from its districtwide rapid testing, while and Highline Public Schools is offering testing and vaccine clinics to reduce the spread. Ebel suggested families also consult their doctor for testing and vaccinations.

"The provider’s office is very safe. That’s the one place you can count on where everyone is masked, people are screened for their symptoms coming in, the providers are vaccinated," said Ebel.

Testing is hard to come by as sites fill up quickly, and at-home tests are difficult to find. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is partnering with Pierce County, Tacoma and Puyallup library branches to offer free test kits.

"These kits are in high demand. We just ask that everyone be patient and kind and also just to take two kits per person because supplies are limited at this time," said Mariesa Bus, Tacoma Public Library public information officer. "This is one way that we can offer our libraries as another point of service for people who need these testing kits so that our community can be safer."

In December, Pierce County Library System distributed 3,515 test kits, Tacoma Public Library distributed 595 kits and Puyallup Public Library distributed 344 test kits.

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