Schools and COVID-19: Where We’re At, What’s Working and What’s Next

Submitted by the Whatcom County Health Department

COVID-19 has disrupted learning, families, and employment for the past two school years. Students missed out on many of the benefits of being in the classroom with peers and teachers, like easy access to meals, technology, physical activity, counselors, and other supportive services. While kids attended school remotely, parents who worked from home had to juggle jobs and child-rearing. Others had to find child care to fill in the gap that schools previously filled. 

We’ve learned a lot about what works to keep kids safe from COVID while in the classroom. That’s why Washington State leaders directed schools to open to in-person, full-time learning this fall.

There are two goals this school year:

  • Minimize transmission of COVID-19 among students and staff in K-12 schools and to their families and broader community. 
  • Maximize in-person instruction.

School districts across our county have risen to the challenge during another surge in COVID-19 cases. They deserve gratitude and recognition for their efforts to teach and care for students under unprecedented circumstances.  

Kids and COVID-19 Rates

Whatcom County continues to be an area of high COVID-19 transmission, according to the CDC. We’re in the middle of our 4th surge in COVID-19 infection rates. Case rates have reached their highest levels since the pandemic began. In the past couple weeks, we’ve begun to see some leveling off of overall case rates.

Despite the flattening of the latest curve, current case rates among children ages 5-17 are higher than for any other age group and are much higher than during any earlier period. Among children, our 14-day case rates for Whatcom County, as of Saturday, October 2, are:

  • 5-10 year olds: 620/100K
  • 11-13 year olds: 631/100K
  • 14-17 year olds: 503/100K
Line chart showing 14 day case rate by age group for week ending October 2

The case rate for school age residents is about 50% higher than the rate for all adults ages 18 and older. School age children in Whatcom County now comprise roughly 25% of all cases.

Approximately 9,000 Whatcom County children ages 12 to 17 have gotten at least one dose of the COVID vaccine so far. That’s about 57% of all residents ages 12 to 15 and 55% of those ages 16 and 17. Vaccination rates across sub-county areas range from roughly 30% to approximately 80%. 

Like the general population, we’re seeing that kids who are vaccinated are much less likely to become infected. Since July 4, the average daily case rate for 12 to 17 year olds who are unvaccinated is 550, compared to 108 for those who are vaccinated. 

What’s Working? 

We’re seeing that preventive measures — most importantly vaccination, masking, and quarantine and isolation — make a difference. Schools also rely on other steps, including ventilation and disinfection, physical distancing to the extent possible, symptom screening, and testing to limit the spread of illness. 

What we have learned through previous research and practice is being shown to work on a much larger scale: when several preventive measures are in place, school-based transmission can be limited and contained and in-person learning can happen safely. We’ve seen some infections in every school district. But these measures help to prevent cases and, when cases are identified, enable a quick response to stop the spread.

Just as there are layers of prevention, there are also multiple responses in the event of cases in schools. In many cases, the combination of quarantine and isolation will be enough to stop the spread. Signs of spread within a classroom or extracurricular activity might call for a temporary closure or suspension. Only as a last resort will school officials, working with the Health Department, close a school.

What’s Next?

We continue to encourage students and their families to stay safe at family and community events and at social gatherings like dances and sporting events. Because of the high levels of transmission in our community, what might look promising today in terms of a countywide reduction in cases or lower numbers in some communities can quickly take a turn for the worse. 

We expect that our youngest kids will soon be eligible for vaccination. We don’t yet know exactly when that will happen, but we’ll be ready when it does. We encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated as soon as possible, whether they’re currently eligible or will be soon. 

Remember, children under 18 are only eligible for the Pfizer vaccine right now. To find a vaccine provider, go to VaccineLocator@doh.wa.gov or check out our weekly listing of pop-up clinics at whatcomcounty.us/covidvaccine. 

To find more information for Students and Families, visit our website page. School guidance from DOH can also be found at:

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