Battle Ground schools grapple with COVID-19 surge

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As the omicron variant of COVID-19 makes its way through Clark County, Battle Ground Public Schools has handled the impacts of spiking virus activity within district borders.

In a Jan. 7 letter, BGPS Superintendent Denny Waters alerted families to the situation. As of the letter, the district was able to keep its doors open, though Waters said “we are likely to see things get worse before they get better” as the peak of the current wave of COVID-19 activity is anticipated toward the end of the month.

“I want you to know that there may come a point when we cannot proceed, and we are forced to close schools for a short time or to suspend even more programs, including extracurricular activities,” Waters wrote.

As of Jan. 7, Waters said the district was not yet at that point.

During the BGPS Board of Directors’ Jan. 10 meeting, Waters updated the board on the COVID-19 situation in the district’s schools. Since students returned after winter break, he said cases have increased drastically.

Waters said prior to winter break the district’s testing facility on the Lewisville campus was testing about 60 people daily. The positivity rate at that time was about 10%.

In the week prior to Jan. 10, Waters said the site tested an average of 130 people a day, including 130 staff and 451 students over the week. The positivity rate for the week was 44%.

Between Nov. 22 to Dec. 10, Waters said the testing facility saw 93 confirmed cases during that time, with nine staff members and 84 students. From Jan. 3 to Jan. 10, the district saw 427 cases at its facility, with 89 staff members and 328 students.

On the day of the meeting, Waters said 10 teachers tested positive on Jan. 10 for COVID-19 at before-school testing where 40 people were tested.

“So you can see that omicron is significantly impacting us,” Waters said.

Waters said normally he would provide data on potential close contacts, but the sheer number of students and staff affected have made it difficult for the district to keep up.

“The contact tracing at this time has overwhelmed us to a degree,” Waters said.

Waters told the board that the school district wasn’t alone. He mentioned Washougal, La Center and Vancouver school districts are experiencing the same thing.

“The numbers are skyrocketing everywhere and the idea of contact tracing is difficult,” Waters said.

Specifically for Vancouver Public Schools, Waters noted local districts have moved to some remote learning in their schools. He said VPS announced its plans for virtual learning the day of Battle Ground’s school board meeting. The Vancouver district decided a quarter of its student population would be in a remote format for learning on a weekly basis.

Waters said the shift is mostly due to buses, as VPS had a significant number of its drivers out. He said BGPS is not currently in the position to take the same measures as Vancouver.

Though not planned for implementation as of the meeting, Waters said he could see specific buildings in the district going remote.

“We have some buildings that have zero staff absent … and then we have other buildings that have 12 or 13 absent, or eight unfilled positions,” Waters said.

The COVID-19 activity surge has generally affected student attendance, Waters said. Though average attendance was at 90%, in the first few days of the new calendar year it dropped to about 85%, with it closer to 81% as of the board meeting.

The district went from 195 staff absences as of Jan. 5, 90 of which went unfilled, to 226 absences on Jan. 10, with 114 unfilled.

Waters said guidance on quarantine procedures is ever-changing. As of the Jan. 10 meeting, those who tested positive could quarantine for five days. If by then they had no symptoms or symptoms were resolving, they did not require a negative test. Those quarantined as a close contact can return after five days with a negative rapid antigen test, which differs from the PCR test that requires a longer period of time to confirm the results since they are sent to a lab.

Waters said the district testing facility is shifting from PCR tests to the rapid antigen tests, per new guidelines. At-home tests can also be valid confirmation as long as the student’s family takes a photo of the test clearly showing the result. It must be marked with the student’s name and the date of the test.

The district ended up running out of its own tests on Jan. 7, Waters said. He said there is no backload of tests, just “a backload of the logistics of being able to get the tests out,” adding BGPS was not alone in the shortage. The only tests left are for athletes which the district didn’t want to use to avoid shutting down sports programs, he said.

To accommodate for the test shortage, the district is requiring the nascent revival of its middle school sports program to mask all participants.

Waters remarked that state-level guidance on COVID-19 protocols can change in the span of a few hours on any given day.

“I apologize to all the parents who … get frustrated because they call us up at eight-o-clock in the morning and we say ‘no, I’m sorry (your child) can’t return yet because we haven’t gotten the (Department of Health) guidance,’ and then two hours later we say ‘yes, you can return because we do have the DOH guidance, but you have to have a test,’ Waters said.

An hour later the guidance changed once again, allowing the student to return without a test, he continued.

Waters stopped during his update to thank the staff of the district. He spoke to the “monumental efforts” they had taken in the wake of omicron. He said even the administration office filled in for classes across the district the prior Friday.

“But the burden of the work, the burden of the effort is falling on our individual buildings,” Waters said.

He said teachers have given up their preparation period to cover classes without a substitute, custodians have helped with lunchtime supervision, and a number of other staff covered positions they are not normally assigned to.

“We have all hands on deck, and so far, we’ve been able to do it,” Waters said.

He also thanked the community for patience as the district grapples with the county’s unprecedented increase of cases. Later in the week, Clark County Public Health reported the county’s recent case rate was nearly three times that of any previous wave of COVID-19.

Waters acknowledged there is “still a great deal of fear” among district families as to how safe the schools are.

“We are still following the guidance from the Department of Health. We have not stepped outside that guidance,” Waters said. “Schools are shown to be one of the safer places for students, because they’re practicing the behaviors.”

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