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Bellingham Public Schools implements new COVID-19 guidelines amid omicron variant

Bellingham Public Schools prioritizes unvaccinated and symptomatic for COVID-19 testing as test supply runs low

The Bellingham Public School District Office sign in Bellingham, Wash. Jan. 26, 2022. With the rising dominance of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, Bellingham Public Schools has to be flexible with their modality. // Photo by Kieran Bresnahan

Bellingham Public Schools will continue to provide on-site rapid-antigen testing as a part of the Test-to-Stay program, implemented on December 3, 2021, for students and staff recently exposed to COVID-19 while offering remote-learning options for students in quarantine.

But a spike in Omicron cases has caused a shortage of tests, which caused the school district to prioritize unvaccinated close contacts, students and staff with symptoms of COVID-19 and students participating in extracurricular activities.

The shortage of COVID-19 tests across Washington State is expected to affect all schools in the state for the next two to three weeks, according to a COVID-19 safety update released by Bellingham Public Schools on Jan. 25, 2022. 

Bellingham Public schools offer the Test-to-Stay program which provides on-site testing for unvaccinated students who have been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person outside of school and at school. As long as students continue to test negative, they can attend class during their quarantine period.

New guidelines were released by The Washington State Department of Health for K-12 COVID-19 requirements on Jan. 7, 2022, detailing new guidance around isolation and quarantine.

“We are doing a lot of rapid testing at our schools,” said Dana Smith, district spokesperson for Bellingham Public Schools. “Different age groups of children are in different spots in terms of some children get frightened by doing a test. So, really taking care of everybody and making sure that it’s a safe and positive experience to get a test at school.”

“Before the program was developed, close-contact children were missing up to two weeks of school,” Smith said. “Two weeks is a long time, it’s a lot of school to miss especially for a young child, and it’s really difficult for the family sometimes when it comes to child care.”

Students who test positive for COVID-19 and have to isolate themselves are offered a remote-learning option for their class through Microsoft Teams. 

“For young children, remote learning is definitely not ideal,” said Amy Cantlon. “My son was in first grade when everything went online. He is left-handed and he really needed to practice writing, using pencil and paper. That was missing when everything went online so I had him start a journal at home.”

The new Washington State DOH guidelines also establish new physical distancing measures of three feet in the classroom. The guidelines note, however, that physical distancing will depend on the students’ age and the amount of physical space available to do so.

“It’s not normal for a kindergarten class to sit in rows three to six feet apart from each other,” Smith said. “And actually, that’s not a good way for little kids to learn. Whereas middle and high school students can do that a little bit more easily.”

Bellingham Public Schools has been holding vaccine clinics in schools for students of all ages, including clinics specifically for students between the ages of 5-11.

“We help to connect interested school districts with vaccine providers, but our staff does not administer vaccines at schools.” Scarlett Tang said, Communications Specialist for the Whatcom County DOH.

The Washington State DOH has launched a new website that offers five free rapid-antigen tests to families. Supplies for the new tests will be limited, but the state expects to restock in two to three weeks once supply increases. To stay up-to-date on the latest vaccine news, the Washington State DOH updates their COVID-19 information on their COVID-19 vaccine website.

“Right now, we would ask our community to continue to be vigilant and help us keep schools open by making safe choices for your family and kids, knowing that this is a highly contagious variant that’s out there,” Smith said.

Kieran Bresnahan

Kieran Bresnahan is a city news reporter studying visual journalism at WWU. He enjoys writing about education and local businesses and taking photos of local events. 


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