After an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak and pressure from local health officials forced them to close their doors last week, the Lynden Christian Schools system is hoping to resume face-to-face instruction on Wednesday, Oct. 13.
Lynden Christian is a private PreK-12 district of three schools and about 1300 students.
Melissa Morin, public information officer for the Whatcom County Health Department, said there were 48 student cases of COVID-19 before the move to remote learning.
“This amounted to a rate about 6 times higher than the average in Whatcom County schools,” Morin said via email.
Lynden Christian Schools told the Health Department that there were over 100 students absent with COVID-like symptoms in addition to the 48 who tested positive, Morin said.
COVID-19 rate of those under age 17 is currently higher than all other age groups, according to an Oct. 1 report from the Health Department data. The Health Department also noted that children between ages 5 and 17 in the Blaine and Lynden sub-county areas have seen a higher case rate than other areas in Whatcom.
In a press release the Health Department said nearly every grade and classroom at Lynden Christian Schools had multiple cases and/or exposures. Several classrooms and grades met the Health Department’s operating definition of a school-associated outbreak.
Lynden Christian did not respond to The Front’s request for interviews but released a public statement on Sept. 30, the day after they shut down.
“We are deeply concerned about the number of cases within the school,” said the statement. “For that reason, we voluntarily followed the likely order of the Whatcom County Health Department to close our school for in-person instruction for the next two weeks.”
The statement was released after the district closed all schools for Wednesday Sept. 29 before beginning online classes that Thursday.
“The health department found limited compliance with the state public health guidance as well as uncontrolled disease transmission,” said Morin.
The department laid out conditions for Lynden Christian’s reopening including a completion of a 14-day closure and proof of adherence to the Washington State Department of Health K-12 COVID-19 requirements. Morin described these requirements to include enforcement of universal face coverings, a comprehensive plan to ensure timely COVID-19 testing, the ability to perform complete contact tracing as well as following reporting requirements.
The sub-county of Lynden currently has the highest COVID-19 rates in Whatcom, topping out last month at over 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents.
At the same time Lynden Christian was about to close, the Lynden School District, the public school system in Lynden, was working closely with the Health Department, according to Assistant Superintendent David Vanderyacht.
“We are in a position where we are confident we will be able to stay open ... but could experience single classroom or program short-term shut downs,” Vanderyacht said.
The Lynden School District applied for and received a grant through the Washington State Department of Health. This allowed them to use state resources to expand testing and monitoring, Vanderyacht said.
“We have a centralized testing system similar to those of professional athletic teams,” Vanderyacht said. “Any student and any staff is able to get tested five days a week.”
This system is able to provide breakdown data to identify where cases are in the district.
While there are only three weeks of published data available, Lynden High School currently shows a higher rate of transmission than other schools in the district.
“It can be more challenging with the older students,” Vanderyacht said. “We have limited control outside of the classroom, school hours and at athletic events.”
Despite being 40% the size of the public schools and having similar geographic boundaries, Lynden Christian has had far more cases. One difference between the schools is that Lynden Christian Schools meet every week for chapel.
On Thursdays, the student body will meet to sing worship songs, pray and listen to a sermon. Several studies have concluded that singing in congregations can increase the transmission risk for COVID-19.
In March of 2020, early in the pandemic, 87% of a Skagit County choir contracted COVID-19 from a single practice attended by one known symptomatic person. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s report, two members died.
“We are very grateful that, by God’s grace, there have been no serious cases in the school,” Lynden Christian Schools concluded in their press release. “It is unfortunate that we are at this point, but together as a school community, we will get through this and back to in-person Christian education.”
Read an update on this story here.
Matt (he/him) added journalism last minute as a punctuation to his time at Western. Majoring in Management Information Systems, he enjoys using spreadsheets and data to understand the story. You can find him behind a camera or microphone at WWU sporting events, the on campus studio or out in the great city of Bellingham.