Some Edmonds School District students planning ‘sick-out’ protest Friday

Some Edmonds School District students are planning  a “sick-out” for Friday, Jan. 21 as a way to advocate for what they see as the district’s need to increase its pandemic safety measures, which includes a temporary shift to remote learning.

Organizers said in an online petition they would like to see the district “switch to remote learning, for even a week, and give students and staff time to recuperate.” They believe that doing so could help “stop the spread of COVID now and prevent much longer school closures in the future.”

Similar to a walkout, a “sick-out” is a strike in which the students who participate will have a parent or guardian notify their school that they are to be excused for the day due to illness. Students in Seattle and other school districts have also engaged in them as a way to demand increased safety protocols during the pandemic.

Emma, a senior at Mountlake Terrace High School who did not wish to be identified by her last name, said ideally she would like to see the district temporarily shift to remote learning “as soon as possible — so probably next week. I think if that doesn’t happen (COVID-19) cases are just going to keep going.”

Students have been spreading the word about the planned “sick-out” on social media and also created the online petition Wednesday, which has garnered nearly 70 signatures so far. It is asking the district to provide N95 or KN95 masks for student use, more accessible testing for students and teachers, “clear communication of COVID cases in schools, including the notification of those in close contact with COVID cases,” and for “a temporary switch to remote learning until it is safe for students and staff to return to in-person school.”

Organizers also note that bus routes and nutrition breaks have recently been cut due to the pandemic.

Regarding her concerns with district’s policy and the students’ requests,  Emma said, “I haven’t directly communicated with them (the district) personally, although I expect at least someone has brought up similar concerns. The petition is the students’ way of doing that.”

“For me it’s kind of just the uncertainty is most concerning because I have asthma and I’m really worried about long-COVID and the consequences of that,” she added. “So it’s just like that anxiety of never really feeling safe.”

She also thinks that district staff should do a better job of policing student traffic in the hallways in order to help maintain social distancing and safety measures. “I’m passing all these people in the halls with like their masks down or under their nose and I’m like, any of these people could be exposing me,” Emma said.

Assistant Superintendent Greg Schwab said of the “sick-out,” We are aware and are working on some communication to our families about it.  We understand that students do have the First Amendment right to express their views and we support them in exercising this right. However, we also must hold them accountable under our district attendance policies and we will leave the decision about whether or not to excuse the absence to their family members.”

The school district sent out a COVID-19 update to families Wednesday night. Under its updated policy, the isolation period has been reduced to five days at home following a positive COVID-19 test or the onset of symptoms, with a return to school permitted on the sixth day. However, in order to be able to return to school then, the symptoms must be absent or resolving, with no fever in the past 24 hours with no medication. Upon return, the person will need to continue to monitor and wear a well-fitting mask for the next five days (days 6-10), and a negative test will no longer be required.

Throughout Snohomish County – and the state — COVID-19 cases have been at an all-time high as the omicron variant has quickly spread. Local health officials recently said that they expect a third to half of the population will get infected.

The student petition notes, “We would rather go remote for a week or two than live with the unknown hanging over our heads; not knowing whether you’ll wake up to a positive COVID test or if school will be abruptly cancelled takes its toll. Every day we come to school we are gambling with our lives. It’s impossible to know whether we’ll be exposed to COVID and if we will be bringing illness home. It’s impossible to know if we’re safe.”

Wednesday night’s update from the school district also lays out some of the factors examined when determining a temporary shift to remote learning. It notes that “every situation has a unique set of circumstances and the Edmonds School District will consider several variables,” which include, but are not limited to:

  • Number of absences due to illness, including lack of staff to operate a classroom or school.
  • Number of students and/or staff COVID positive in any given classroom/school and high transmission rate in the last 14 days.
  • Number of students unable to access in-person learning due to isolation or quarantine requirements.
  • Higher ratio of unvaccinated to vaccinated students in a given class or building.

In addition, Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas, in coordination with Snohomish Health District, will make the final decision for any classroom, school, or district-wide shift to remote learning.

During an update at last week’s school board meeting, Balderas said that although the district is working to keep school buildings open for in-person learning, staff would be making decisions based on data and advice from public health officials.

He added that switching to remote learning or a hybrid learning model would not be as easy as it was in the past and is something staff are working to avoid. “We know that kids need to be on our campuses, and we want to keep them on our campuses,” Balderas said.

“For now we’re saying just call out sick (Friday) and like don’t mention the actual ‘sick-out,’” Emma said. “But the hope I think is that the district has been saying that if a certain threshold of students call out sick in a day schools will have to close. So there’s the possibility that we could get enough people to participate to close down the school for at least a couple of days.

The district had announced earlier this month that it was “preparing for the possibility to temporarily shift to remote learning” due to the spike in COVID-19 cases. It also said it was postponing concerts, performances and in-person meetings, and suspending snack breaks for all grade levels in order to minimize the time that students aren’t wearing masks. In addition, the district has faced a “severe” shortage of bus drivers that has required it to make changes in routes, pick-ups and drop-offs.

However, organizers of the “sick-out” and online petition said they feel that, “If you have to cut student resources to ‘keep us safe’ you are not truly keeping us safe.”

Edmonds School District has a new online COVID-19 dashboard that recently launched Jan. 6. It notes that updated information is provided “as soon as a district health worker closes out a case, which includes contact tracing and notifying that school community.”

Emma said she believes the dashboard has left a lot of students and parents feeling “kind of in the dark” regarding updates and notifications of new positive cases.

“With the notifying close contacts, I understand that schools are probably really overwhelmed,” she added, “But I had a friend test positive and he’s been sick for a while and I sit right next to him in one of my classes and I still haven’t been notified about that. I wouldn’t have known if I wasn’t close to him already – so I don’t feel safe knowing that I could be in contact with all these people and never hear a word from the school.”

The district’s policy notes that it focuses contact traces for each positive COVID-19 case identified on campuses and/or school activity. “However, DOH released new guidance for schools this month to focus on high-priority areas when it comes to risk of transmission of COVID-19.” Those high-priority areas include school buses and transportation, indoor and outdoor school-affiliated activities such as sports, music or physical education – including but not limited to those that are aerosol-generating, indoor spaces where masks are not consistently worn or masking may be limited by activities such as mealtimes, special education classrooms with intermittent masking, and also other activities.

Since winter break ended, some schools in the district have already experienced temporary shifts to remote learning because of the number of students and staff out due to illness including Mountlake Terrace Elementary School, Lynnwood High School and College Place Elementary.

Emma noted that some of her classes have recently had significant numbers of students out sick and several teachers have also been absent due to illness. She reported there has been some confusion online about how long the students organizing the petition and “sick-out” would like for the district to again shift to remote learning.

“We’re not asking for like the rest of the year to be online,” Emma said. “I hated remote learning last year and I don’t learn well, but it’s more a matter of shutting down schools long enough so that students aren’t like putting their lives at risk every time they go to school,” she added. “And I am willing to sacrifice a few weeks of learning for that.”

– By Nathan Blackwell

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