Toledo high schoolers will return to remote learning this week after the district reported 28 positive COVID-19 cases and 62 close contacts within the past month, mostly at the high school, as well as multiple instances of parents and students breaking COVID-19 health protocols.
The district’s 203 high schoolers will return to remote learning on Tuesday and are expected to be back in class next Monday. The closure is an effort to allow all of the district’s close-contacts to expire, said Superintendent Chris Rust.
The school board approved the action in a 3-2 vote during a special Saturday morning meeting at Toledo Middle School. Board member Brad Dykstra and Vice Chair Monique Norberg voted against the move, preferring instead another option to schedule a meeting for Monday and send robocalls to remind families to follow guidelines.
Despite breaks in health compliance, the district still plans to move forward with the high school’s graduation ceremony, which is set for Saturday.
The board over the weekend also passed a motion warning attendees that it’s “possible” people who should be in quarantine will likely be in attendance, and attendees will be attending the event “at their own risk.” Social distancing and masks will be required.
Some parents and students in recent weeks have reportedly acted in blatant disregard of the school district’s coronavirus protocols.
Rust laid out the district’s recent findings in an operations update posted last Friday: some infected or symptomatic students say their parents sent them to school anyway; students have come to class without masks; some parents or students who are close contacts haven’t followed quarantine guidance; multiple students haven’t reported their positive tests to the district; and, on May 22, at least 108 people, including some Toledo students, attended a privately-sponsored prom where at least one person later tested positive for the virus.
“It is highly likely that the health and safety of our staff and students is being compromised by elements of our community who are choosing to ignore or to willfully violate reasonable efforts to reduce the spread of infection,” Rust wrote.
As of Friday, there were 10 people associated with the school district who has tested positive for the virus; six of them reported within the first three days of June and five of them were directly associated with the high school.
All of the district’s cases, except one, can be tied back to community transmission and activities outside of the classroom, Rust said, and the district’s action to temporarily send students back to remote learning is intended to mitigate the impact the spread has had on the education community.
“For the most part, our community has been diligent and our staff have been incredibly diligent. It only takes a few people,” Rust told The Chronicle.
Like many other school districts in the Lewis County area, Toledo has been struggling to maintain in-person instruction operations in recent weeks as COVID-19 surges. Oakville, for example, announced last week that it would return all students and staff to remote learning for the few remaining days of the school year.
Some in the Toledo community, however, appear to be uncooperative in complying with preventative measures, and the school board over the weekend was torn on how to respond given the time of year and the fact that the district wasn’t near the point to which the county would require it to return fully to remote learning.
“I had a hard time deciding on this, but I really do feel we need to do this for the last 10 days … We need to do all we can to not spread this,” wrote board chair Lance Maier in a message on Zoom that was read out loud by Rust.
Dykstra said at the meeting that he was unconvinced that transmission among students and staff would decrease if they returned to remote learning since transmission occurs outside the classroom.
"I'd like to see us give people one more chance. Like, 'Stay home if you have symptoms,'" he said, adding that he’d like to see the district give the community a “wakeup that we’ve all been complacent. We’re seeing cases rise, we all need to do our part to keep our friends, neighbors, family health — if you’re sick, stay home.”
Board member Heidi Buswell said what’s concening is the systemic disregard for the rules. Even if it’s not the primary way that students and staff are contracting the disease, Buswell said, she feels they have an obligation to act.
“Part of me thinks that it’s irresponsible to not say, ‘hey, we have an opportunity to block a pathway of transmission’ and I think it’s our responsibility to do that if we can … At least we’re cutting down one of those avenues of transmission,” she said.
Rust told the board there have been some “clear economic realities” that played a role in these instances of noncompliance. Some parents, he said, just aren’t able to find child care resources to watch their children throughout the day.
Of the prom that risked exposure to 107 people, Rust said they weren’t critical of the folks who organized it.
“That was a very common event that happened in Lewis County, and Grays Harbor County as well,” he said.
Parents who test positive for COVID-19 also aren't required by either state or county guidance to report their infection to the school district, Rust said, which is troubling because then students by way of living in the same household become a close-contact, possibly without even realizing it.
Rust said Lewis County Public Health and Social Services’ threshold initiating a classroom closure requires two or more linked positive COVID-19 cases among students or staff within a 14-day period. Those cases must be confirmed to have been spread in the classroom.
Metrics that would trigger a complete shutdown of a school are much broader, Rust said. At least 10% of classrooms must be closed and the school must be experiencing a “rapid increase of cases,” among other thresholds.
As of May 26, there have been 194 positive COVID-19 cases in the Toledo ZIP code. Lewis County Public Health and Social Services in recent weeks stopped reporting new cases per ZIP code, so it’s unclear how many new cases in recent days have sprung up in the immediate Toledo area, including the school district.