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Tacoma parents worry as younger students ineligible for COVID-19 vaccine head back to school

Tacoma parent Leah Coakley said the younger kids especially need protection since they are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

TACOMA, Wash. —
Some parents sent their young kids back to Tacoma schools for the first day Wednesday morning with heavy hearts, worried about their safety and COVID-19.

Tacoma parent Leah Coakley is getting ready to send her child to Kindergarten Monday, since the younger kids start a little later in Tacoma. She said these kids in particular need protection since they are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

"We were all shocked and deeply saddened by the death of the first child at Seattle Children's Hospital recently, that was a big just kind of reminder for all of us that we need to take COVID seriously," Coakley said. Seattle Children’s recently confirmed its first patient death due to the virus but did not reveal the patient’s age or vaccination status.

Coakley is organizing a group of Tacoma parents who plan to go to Thursday's Tacoma School Board Meeting to voice their concerns. They are hoping that the school board will be willing to work with them.

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"We know that this board is deeply concerned just like we are about the health and safety of all of our students," she said.

Coakley said the primary ask from parents is that school lunches be held outside, much like Seattle schools has been doing to keep students safe.

"Currently in Tacoma we have several outdoor school programs that offer outdoor lunches and snacks," Coakley said. "They are used to dealing with kindergarten age students and preschool age students and have successfully shown that we can do outdoor lunches and snacks in a way that works for everyone and is manageable," she said.

In a statement from Tacoma Public Schools (TPS), a spokesperson said each school has a different plan for lunches based on the physical layout of the buildings and the number of students.

The school district also pointed out that each school and district site has a COVID supervisor who has been meeting with other staff in the district over the summer to plan and make sure students will be safe this school year.

However, some Tacoma parents just want to know more so they can trust that their kids will be safe.

"The district and the health department have a lot of information that we as parents don't have, and so we would definitely need to collaborate together and all share our knowledge and resources in order to come out with the best possible outcome for everyone," Coakley said.

Parents also plan to ask for additional contact tracing measures and more communication between parents, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, the district, schools and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

"Regardless of politics we all want kids to be in school, we want them to be safe and healthy, and we don't want interruptions to our lives," Coakley said. "We want to know what's happening."

TPS said every district building has an updated safety plan for this school year that it is working to get on each school's website. 

To see all of the updated COVID-19 policies and rules for TPS, head to the district's website

TPS sent KING 5 the following statement: 

"Our schools and district have been working hard to prepare for in-person learning this year. Each school and district site has a COVID supervisor, and throughout the summer they have continued to meet and plan. Each building has a safety plan which has been updated for the 2021-2022 school year, we are working to get those plans on school websites.

"This year, students and families will find many COVID prevention measures are the same as the last school year, but there are a few updates.

"Masks and social distancing continue this year for students and staff. And in the event of a COVID case at a school or district building, we continue to work with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to conduct contact tracing.

"Daily attestations are no longer required unless a student, staff member, or visitor are symptomatic, exposed to COVID, and/or have been diagnosed with COVID. This is due to a change in state guidance to schools.

"Each school has a specific plan for lunches based on the number of students and the physical layout of the building. Many schools added an additional lunch period. Schools are using the cafeteria and in some cases the gym and classrooms. Most of our high schools have an option for students to eat outside. We continue to look for ways to adjust and adapt meal plans to maximize social distancing.

"TPS just announced a partnership with the Washington State Department of Health to offer free, voluntary COVID-19 tests to students showing symptoms of the virus. Tests will be available in all of our schools shortly after the start of the school year. We hope testing will serve as an early warning system to stop outbreaks from spreading in schools.

"This information and more can found our district website. From the district and school level, we are providing families with information directly, and if plans change we’ll keep them informed."