Waterville and Palisades
Waterville and Palisades School District didn’t plan on becoming the primary COVID-19 testing provider for the area. That was never the goal. The goal was to keep kids safe and in school.
The way to do that? Testing, testing, testing.
However, there was no COVID-19 testing in Waterville and Palisades. The local clinic didn’t offer it, mobile testing sites weren’t consistent and the nearest clinic that did offer testing was 45 minutes away. In order to keep the nearly 300 students served by the Waterville and Palisades School District safe and in school, Superintendent Tabatha Mires had to figure out where her students and their families could access reliable testing services.
Students in rural communities often have less access to resources like community testing than those in larger cities. So the lack of testing in Waterville might not have been a surprise to some – but that didn’t make it okay, especially to Superintendent Mires. She quickly realized that if the school district didn’t offer testing, these communities wouldn’t have access to it, resulting in more outbreaks and school closures.
Waterville and Palisades, located about an hour away from each other in central Washington, are separated by a scenic drive that cuts through vast farmland before breaking into foothills and buttes. Waterville, with 265 students, is the larger of the two small school districts, and under Mires’ leadership, became the epicenter of community COVID-19 testing for the area.
There was strong resistance to masking and vaccines from many in the surrounding communities, complicating efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools and the wider community. Based on those community concerns, Mires and her team knew there would be some hesitation and resistance to COVID-19 testing. But that’s not what they focused on. They focused exclusively on one goal, which unified community members from different sides of the divide: To keep kids safe and in school.
That goal was central to how Mires and her team communicated about COVID-19 testing to the community. Regardless of how people felt about mandates, masking, vaccines and all the other complicated divides COVID-19 exacerbated, the simple truth for Waterville and Palisades was: If we can identify positive cases in our community, we can keep kids in school. Working closely with her tireless Learn to Return Program Manager, Jess Harvey, Mires navigated the work of registering as a testing site, getting a CLIA waiver, and applying for grants.
Waterville ensured students had yearly consent forms for COVID-19 testing. However, before every single test, the school contacted parents and gave them options. This built a lot of trust with parents. They also made sure that parents and students understood how testing worked. As Mires explains, “We modeled the testing process for students and athletes. We tried to eliminate some of the fears and misconceptions with students and they then took that information home to families – which was huge. Our nurses also built really trusting relationships with families. They could communicate about the fact that regardless of what anyone felt about masks or vaccines or any of those pieces, knowing that someone had COVID was going to serve our greater purpose – which was keeping kids learning in person.”
And that meant every kid. Some students at Waterville are medically fragile, and they weren’t left behind. That was one of their greatest successes in Mires’ eyes. “Our ability to communicate with populations that might have an impact on medically fragile students and their families, specifically to communicate the importance of testing, made a difference for those students and their ability to enroll in school, stay in school and keep their families safer.”
They also did a huge amount of outreach to generate awareness of the testing site throughout the community, building trust and buy-in through clear, consistent communication. They sent emails, they posted flyers in the community, and they pushed their message by word of mouth. The local clinic, which required patients to show a negative COVID test for treatment, referred community members to the school for testing. People begin coming to the school for testing so they could go to the clinic, travel for work, or return to the office.
The school’s bilingual secretary, Maricela Saldana, ensured that COVID testing information reached Spanish speaking communities that initially had higher rates of infection than the rest of the community. Mires notes, “Our bilingual secretary did an incredible job building relationships with Latino families. They had access that wasn’t offered to that community before. That translated that into opportunities to support them in other ways – such as providing take-home tests and over the counter tests.”
The testing program at Waterville was just one part of the puzzle. The trust the school community was able to build with families and community members through testing opened the door to other conversations: here’s why masking matters in the context of a school, here’s how vaccines work, here’s the flow chart. Mires explains, “That ability to unite around something in a really difficult political climate in our community was huge. It really came down to our staff, our coaches, our nurses, our secretaries.” This trust allowed the conversation to shift, and provided space for the school to share information about accessing and registering for vaccines.
In a community that resisted masks and vaccines, the testing program wasn’t a guaranteed success. However, by centering their unifying goal, communicating clearly and transparently, and by building trust with communities, Mires and the staff at Waterville and Palisades overcame community hesitation and built stronger links to their community. There were days, especially in January and February of 2022, when every test seemed to come back positive, that Mires and her team would ask themselves: Why do we keep doing this?!
The answer was quick and pushed away the doubt and fatigue: Because we want to keep our kids healthy, safe and in school.
In Waterville and Palisades, having something to unite over – and achieve – made all the hard work worth it.