Schools are open in many parts of the county even as our Okanogan County COVID-19 incidence rate climbs. As a reminder, the incidence rate is the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days. Okanogan County’s population is approximately 43,000 people, but we use this incidence rate calculation so we can compare how widespread the virus is in our community relative to other counties of varying population sizes.
Our incidence rate is high, so why are schools open?
At first, school districts set an incidence rate of 75 cases per 100,000 people in the previous 14 days as the target the community needs to hit for in-person classes to be considered safe. But as we learn more about how the virus spreads, we see that many schools are operating safely even when the incidence rate in the community is higher than 75 cases per 100,000 people.
For example, national and local data show us that COVID-19 is not as likely to be spread in schools–especially elementary and middle schools–as it is in the general population (though school-based testing is limited in many areas). Kids in school are wearing masks, washing hands often, and keeping physically distant from each other, and class sizes are small. These measures used together prevent the spread of COVID-19. Our schools have also increased air circulation throughout the buildings.
When a student does get sick with COVID-19, schools have been largely successful in notifying all affected people and ensuring quarantine protocols are followed. The successes of school-based COVID-19 management allows schools to stay open even when incidence rates climb in the county. But schools can also close when risk grows in the community or the school-based community does not follow essential steps to prevent and manage COVID-19.
An important note: the majority of COVID-19 cases in our community come from people gathering together and people traveling outside the county.
Who decides if schools open or close?
Superintendents meet each week to look at local data and make decisions about school openings. Schools can look at the number of positive cases within the zip codes included in their school district and calculate a local incidence rate for their specific community. So, instead of using the incidence rate for the entire county, Pateros School District, for example, can look at the positive cases within the Pateros zip code and make decisions about classes based on local information. School districts must also continually assess if they have enough resources (available teachers, administrators, custodial crew, etc.) to operate safely.
Ultimately, the decision to open or close schools is in the hands of school superintendents and the Health Officer of Okanogan County, Dr. John McCarthy. Click here to hear Dr. McCarthy talk about school reopening decisions in an interview on December 2nd with the KOZI FM morning show.
Should I keep my child home from school?
Because symptoms of COVID-19 can look similar to cold and flu symptoms, any student who has cold or flu-like symptoms should stay home from school. Also, if anyone in your household tests positive for COVID-19, you will need to keep your child at home and away from others for 14 days. Check everyone in your household for fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Do not go to work or school, and avoid public places for 14 days (self quarantine).
Our local school administrators and health officials want to keep the schools open as long as it is safe to do so. To keep community spread low and give our schools the best chance to stay open, please wear a mask when you are around people who you do not live with, keep 6 feet of distance between yourself and others, and wash your hands often. If you experience COVID-19 symptoms, get tested for COVID-19 right away.