Edmonds School District
For Mara Marano-Bianco and the Edmonds School District, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a journey. It started with building an emergency response to the pandemic, and it continues as Marano-Bianco works to establish an ongoing, comprehensive public health infrastructure that serves both Edmonds School District and wider Snohomish County.
Marano-Bianco is the Director of Student Health Services for the district, which encompasses five cities and portions of unincorporated Snohomish County, 35 schools, 21,000 students, and just under 4,000 staff. What started as a temporary, emergency program to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in district schools, has evolved into a community-wide public health infrastructure that empowers the staff of Edmonds School District to not only combat COVID-19, but to also mitigate other respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases within the community.
When talking to Marano-Bianco about the district’s COVID-19 testing program, a few things become immediately clear: Marano-Bianco knows her stuff, she values her team, she’s always prepared, and she’s focused on doing what’s right for students and their families.
Knows her stuff
Before joining Edmonds School District six years ago, Marano-Bianco spent 23 years as a public health professional. This background in public health has shaped her thorough approach to pandemic mitigation measures in the district. She and her team have built a COVID-19 response that serves both students and families throughout south Snohomish County.
Marano-Bianco built the district’s testing strategy on comprehensive testing access. Edmonds School District not only provides access to drive through testing at every school, but they also established a centralized testing location that still offers both PCR and rapid testing services before and after school. This increases access to testing across the community – allowing parents and guardians who can’t access testing sites during working hours to get tested at school drop-off and pick-up.
During the Omicron surge in January 2022, this service was widely used – entire families would roll up in their cars to be tested. While the numbers have dropped since October 2022, the drive through testing site is still accessed by 2-3 families per day, and Marano-Bianco expects those numbers to increase in January. As influenza and RSV cases increase – causing many families to wonder: “Is it COVID?” – Edmonds School District continues to provide a way for families to answer that question and make decisions that will keep their family and community safe.
Values hers team
Marano-Bianco is quick to emphasize that the Edmonds School District testing program is a team effort. Although she often provides the spark and the direction, the success of the program would not be possible without the support and trust she and her team receive from school district leaders, school nurses, and health screeners. “The school district has always respected my plans and says: Ok, do what you need to do. I was lucky, I know not every district provides that support.”
Marano-Bianco also works closely with her Learn to Return Program Manager, Doaa Elgaali, who she describes as “fabulous.”
“Every time I have a question, Doaa guides me in the direction that I need. We’re able to problem-solve together. And she alerts me when there are opportunities that could benefit the district – such as funding opportunities.”
With Elgaali’s support, Marano-Bianco was able to access funding from the Labor Support Fund. This funding was used to maintain employment for 35 health screeners throughout the district. These health screeners were originally hired by the school district to screen students for COVID symptoms when students returned to school following closures. However, in the years since, their jobs have evolved – and with the support of the L2R funding their role has expanded to support COVID testing, manage isolation rooms for symptomatic students, and support the health room as needed.
Marano-Bianco also credits the Seattle Visiting Nurses Association for their support organizing over 13 drive through and in-school vaccination clinics serving Edmonds, Everett, and Mukilteo School Districts. Marano-Bianco notes, “We were able to immunize 21% of Snohomish county students through our clinics.”
Additionally, a partnership with Medical Teams International (MTI) was instrumental in increasing access to vaccines throughout the district by providing vaccines to students and families both before and after school. Working with MTI was a targeted approach with Edmonds’ Title 1 schools, where access to a central location offering vaccines could be difficult. With support from L2R, the district provided Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Amharic, Vietnamese, Urdu, Russian, Arabic and Spanish translators for these events.
In December 2021, Marano-Bianco watched as Omicron cases increased globally. She also saw an uptick in cases amongst her students who wrestled and played basketball. While the Omicron surge wasn’t yet being fully felt in Snohomish, she knew it had the potential to increase cases in her community. After consulting with Elgaali, Marano-Bianco ordered 10,000 tests through L2R in early December 2021.
When the Omicron surge hit in January 2022, it was “like drinking through a fire hose.” But as overwhelming as it was for the staff, because of Marano-Bianco’s forecasting, they had the testing supplies they needed to provide continuous testing services throughout the surge.
She explains, “I always like to see what’s coming. I try to keep an eye on what’s coming globally and not just what’s happening in our backyard. That’s what’s kept us successful.” This December, Marano-Bianco is tracking BQ1 and BQ1.1 and mapping out how many tests she’ll be ordering to combat a potential surge in January 2023.
Does what’s right for her students and their families.
Although mitigation measures are waning throughout the state and the country, Marano-Bianco knows that they’re still proven to help keep transmission levels low and students safe. Are communities tired of COVID? Sure. Marano-Bianco gets that, but she’s a realist. COVID is still circulating locally and globally and her job is to do what’s right for her students and their families. That’s why Edmonds School District has maintained its testing services, offering in-school testing as well as off-hours testing at a centralized location to accommodate as many community members as possible. Maintaining some of the mitigating measures, such as regular cleaning, hand hygiene, staying home when feeling ill and access to masks don’t just help reduce COVID cases, they’re also effective at mitigating the spread of RSV and flu. “We knew this was going to be a harsh influenza year, we knew the RSV was on the rise. So, learning from other countries like Australia and seeing their influenza cases and numbers, we thought: we need to keep mitigation measures in play.”
“A lot of the mitigating measures that we have learned through COVID-19 have been streamlined in our buildings and will help with any other respiratory or gastrointestinal diseases that come down the pike. We see that with RSV, influenza and this cacophony of respiratory and gastro diseases all coming at the same time. But we have the mitigating measures in place and we can very easily tell families – this may or may not be COVID. We suggest you go to your medical practitioner and get a sense of what your student is dealing with.”
As a result of Marano-Bianco’s knowledge, team-centric approach, preparation and focus on doing what’s right for her students, Edmonds School District has built more than a temporary COVID-19 testing program. They’ve built a public health infrastructure that has successfully served students during the COVID-19 pandemic and is poised to continue helping students and families stay healthy in the face of COVID, RSV and whatever else comes down the pike.