Snoqualmie Valley schools deal with COVID cases, staffing shortages

Enrollment numbers rose as students in the Snoqualmie Valley School District successfully returned to in-person classes Aug. 31, but the district continues to deal with the ongoing pandemic and its staffing shortages.

Over the last two weeks, the district welcomed back an additional 220 K-12 students compared to this time last year, including an additional 132 Kindergartners, according to its Sept. 7 headcount report. The biggest change was seen at the high school level, where 122 additional students were enrolled compared to last year. The biggest drop was seen among first-graders.

Enrollment numbers were slightly higher than the district projected when calculating its annual budget. Enrolment numbers are also expected to increase as the district said it has heard from several parents that they will return their elementary-aged students to the classroom after they are eligible for the vaccine.

“We are really pleased with the enrollment,” Superintendent Lance Gibbon said. “There are a number of districts in our area that are struggling with enrollment, so much so that they may be going to the Legislature. We have a reason to be thankful.”

With students returning, the district continues to take precautions against COVID-19. With its recent staffing additions at the elementary level, the district has kept most classrooms between 17 and 22 students, which allows them to comply with the recommended three-foot physical distancing.

The district reported 21 COVID cases between Aug. 31, and Sept. 10, according to its COVID-19 dashboard. So far, none of these cases have been linked to in-school transmissions. Of those 21 cases, 19 were among students, according to Carolyn Malcolm, a spokesperson for the district.

Malcolm said the district is seeing proportionally fewer cases among older students, most of whom are vaccinated. Eighteen of the district’s 21 cases came during the second week of school, which followed a holiday weekend. Positive cases among both staff and students remain a problem across the Eastside, as the Lake Washington, Issaquah and Bellevue school districts have also had confirmed cases.

Every school in the Snoqualmie Valley School District — with the exception of Fall City Elementary and Snoqualmie Middle School — had at least one case in the first two weeks. Cascade Elementary had the most cases with six. Mount Si, Twin Falls, and Opstad each had three. The district has not yet had a case related to athletics.

Still, the district’s case rate remains similar to that of the Snoqualmie and is less than half the rate of the county. Malcolm emphasized that the district is following all precautions and is continuing to offer rapid on-site testing.

To stop the spread of cases, Malcolm emphasized that it is important for the community to work by staying home when sick, getting tested and getting vaccinated. The district is working with each student on a case-by-case basis if they need to quarantine and is providing virtual learning when necessary.

“We anticipated [cases]. Certainly, COVID remains in our community, and we know that students with COVID will come into our school on occasion,” Gibbon said. “We have had a few cases, but the good news is we haven’t had any spread at school.”

Staffing shortages and the vaccine

Transposition continues to be an issue for the district. On its first day of school, the district had to rely on office staff to drive its remaining buses as three drivers were out that day. Schools also continue to face significant traffic issues due to more parents driving.

“More parents are helping us by driving, but that’s causing some problems with our buildings that aren’t built for a lot more traffic,” said Ryan Stokes, the assistant superintendent of finance and operations for the district.

Another concern is timeliness. To compensate for some of the cancellations, the district has extended several routes, which has made it more difficult for buses to arrive at class on time. Over the summer, the district hired nine new drivers, but will need at least eight more to complete all of the routes.

This week, the district will be training four new drivers, who will each need 80 hours behind the wheel before they can pick up routes. Stokes said training could take between eight to 10 weeks. The district also has five additional applications from bus drivers, who will start training soon if they meet eligibility requirements, Stokes said.

At its Sept. 10 school board meeting, the district also highlighted shortages among cafeteria workers, groundskeepers and custodial workers, all of which have unfilled positions.

Both Gibbon and Beth Porter, the district’s executive director of human resources, said they do not believe the state’s vaccine mandate for school staff will have a significant impact on staffing at the school itself. They are unsure if the mandate will impact its bus situation.

Currently, the district has 120 staff who have not reported their vaccination status or filed an exemption on a religious or health basis, Porter said. Gibbon said he was only aware of one employee who does not plan to get the vaccine. Porter said many staff members may still be in the process of getting the vaccine.

“I think we may end up with a smaller number of people who choose not to get vaccinated,” Porter said. “I’m not totally concerned it’s a large number.”

Porter said she will be sending out a formal letter to staff on Monday, Sept. 13, that will require a response on whether the staff member intends to get vaccinated.

“This year is harder than last year for the work behind the scenes,” Gibbon said. “But I really appreciate the work our team has done.”