Massive Covid outbreaks occurred at Seattle-area schools with lax protocols
Huge outbreaks at Cedar Park Christian School in Bothell and Renton Christian School account for the majority of Covid cases in confirmed outbreaks at K-12 schools in King County this fall.
There have been 29 confirmed Covid outbreaks at K-12 public and private schools in King County since September.
Most of these were small outbreaks, with no more than four confirmed cases, but others were massive, with 80 or more people infected at two separate Christian school campuses outside Seattle.
Unvaccinated staff and students were hit hardest in the major outbreaks. The state approached two of those schools for not enforcing the mask mandate.
There have been few confirmed coronavirus outbreaks in schools overall, which to public health officials suggests that in-school mitigation is working. They credit universal masking, vaccination, illness screening, and improved ventilation and filtration among the successful prevention steps most schools have taken.
One of this fall's big outbreaks occurred at Renton Christian School, with at least 82 people getting Covid during an outbreak that began in September, according to Public Health.
At the Cedar Park Christian School campus in Bothell, 80 or more in the secondary school were infected, with another 30 positive cases in the elementary school, the county data shows. Those outbreaks also began in September.
In all three outbreaks, nearly all of those infected were students.
Renton Christian administrators did not respond to interview requests. At Cedar Park, an administrator named Steve, who declined to give his last name, challenged the veracity of the public health data.
“What the county sent you is not accurate,” Steve said.
While the Bothell schools may have had 110 Covid cases this school year, he said, public health “did not feel the desire to separate” infections staff and students had acquired outside of school.
“It is difficult to determine with certainty where someone is initially exposed,” acknowledged Sharon Bogan, a spokesperson for Public Health Seattle - King County.
“With larger outbreaks, people may be exposed to multiple people who are infectious. It is possible that some cases in the data set acquired Covid-19 through household transmission or in the community,” Bogan said.
However, the case counts per outbreak are an underestimate, health officials said, because people who only test positive on a home kit are not included in the data. All of the people counted in the data were at school during their infectious period, Bogan said.
“When there are concerns that there is uncontrolled transmission, public health’s role is to help provide infection control guidance, regardless of where initial exposure occurred,” Bogan said.
Both Cedar Park Christian and Renton Christian are affiliated with the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Cedar Park also has campuses in Lynnwood, Bellevue, and Mill Creek.
The Cedar Park administration told staff and families in an August email that despite their best efforts - including seeking legal advice - they had no choice but to require universal mask-wearing this fall.
“Our Cedar Park faculty knows that wearing face coverings is not only uncomfortable, but has a negative impact on communication and social dynamics,” the school leadership wrote.
“We will continue to seek every lane of liberty and flexibility that becomes available to us, including the ‘appropriate removal of layered mitigation strategies’ at the earliest opportunity,” the school said.
However, photographs on social media show unmasked staff and students at Cedar Park schools, including in classrooms and singing during chapel.
Inconsistent mask-wearing by students and staff was likely one of the many factors that contributed to the largest outbreaks, said Bogan.
She pointed to low vaccination rates as another key factor: Only 8% of the 192 people confirmed infected at the two campuses were vaccinated.
Other risk factors at one or both campuses, Bogan said, include inadequate ventilation and filtration, insufficient testing or delays in testing, students eating meals in classrooms, and students and staff gathering at off-campus indoor events.
“What these large outbreaks show is that vaccination is a powerful tool,” Bogan said. “They reinforce that Covid-19 can and will take hold and spread if we let down our guard and remove prevention steps that we know work.”
The State Board of Education, which oversees private schools, has received seven complaints this fall regarding the lack of consistent masking at Cedar Park Christian’s Bothell campus, according to agency records.
“[Cedar Park has] since sent us their plans to follow Covid-19 health mandates,” Stephanie Davidsmeyer, the agency spokesperson said in an email. “Schools that are found to be out of compliance with laws and regulations may have their private school approval revoked.”
Public Health Seattle - King County Confirmed K-12 Covid Outbreaks Sept.1 - Nov. 6, 2021
Data Note: KUOW omitted from the overall outbreak count two schools due to insufficient data: Intandem at Roxhill Elementary School (where only one case was counted) and Chautauqua Elementary School - Preschool (not a K-12 setting).
Elsewhere in the county, double-digit outbreaks also occurred at Highland Middle School in Bellevue, where 11 students and four staff members were infected with Covid beginning in mid-September.
And at least a dozen people involved with a sports team at Mount Si High School, in Snoqualmie, got positive tests during an outbreak first reported in late October.
Although overall Covid rates have been highest in lower-income areas, the 29 confirmed outbreaks spanned regions with various demographics and levels of community transmission, and even among some of the youngest students: The virus spread at schools in well-off neighborhoods, like Loyal Heights Elementary in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, and Wellington Elementary in Woodinville.
The small size of most of this fall’s school outbreaks, Bogan said, “suggests that in-school mitigation is working.”
Most of the outbreaks were first identified in classrooms, the data shows. Three outbreaks were traced to buses, two to sports teams, and a handful to other settings.
When public health determines that Covid spread at a school, the agency gives the school infection control guidance, Bogan said, “including ventilation assessment to help limit further spread and prevent future outbreaks.”
“Now that vaccination is becoming available for younger age groups, we have even more opportunity to prevent large school outbreaks,” Bogan said.