With a month in school, the four Tri-Valley school districts are diligently working to keep students on campus by limiting transmission of COVID-19, but it hasn't been easy for the districts, students or parents.
The districts have had to interpret county health codes, hire staff to do contact tracing and put in place protocols that vary based on vaccination status, symptoms and whether masks were worn. Trying to decipher and comply with the protocol instructions has left some parents frustrated and students at home.
A dashboard that records the number of students and staff by school or department who were presumed to be infectious while on a school campus are on Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin and San Ramon Valley school districts' websites.
As of Sept. 17, only one district -- Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District -- had possible cases of the virus spreading among students on campus and were reported as such out of an abundance of caution.
"We have had a small number (three) of at-school transmission. We can't say that as an absolute certainty, of course, as the students could have been exposed in other places," said Chris Van Schaack, deputy superintendent at LVJUSD, who is leading the district's COVID reporting. "However, when we have an individual case in a classroom, and then another student in the same classroom subsequently tests positive, we operate under the assumption that it was an in-school transmission."
Terry Koehne, interim communications director at San Ramon Valley Unified School District, reported the district hasn't had any cases of on-campus transmission to their knowledge but concurred that tracking the origin of cases can be challenging.
"It is difficult to prove since we don't know if students at school who also hang out together in the community are spreading the virus when not at school, or at school," Koehne said.
Dublin Unified School District has had no known such cases, and Pleasanton Unified School District uses the Alameda County Public Health Department to monitor on-campus transmissions.
"ACPHD has not confirmed that any cases were spread student to student," said Kelly French, PUSD's pandemic services coordinator. "More than likely the cases that have been reported at school are a result of community transmission."
In addition to keeping a dashboard and FAQs for everyone, parents are notified if their student has come in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
In the past, whole classes generally had to quarantine when a student tested positive for COVID-19. This year, kids who come into close contact with a positive case can typically continue to attend school, regardless of vaccination status, as long as they don't have any symptoms, meet testing requirements and everyone was wearing masks at the time of exposure.
The guidelines for positive cases aren't the only thing that has changed this school year. There are no longer rules for socially distancing students in classrooms, so class sizes no longer have to be reduced.
Masks are still mandatory indoors, but not all districts have the same policy.
LVJUSD, DUSD, and SRVUSD are "meeting but not exceeding health mandates."
However at PUSD schools, according to spokesperson Patrick Gannon, masks are required outdoors and indoors, and it has been this way since the start of the school year.
In addition to keeping dashboards updated and translating county health department policies and guidelines, school districts have had to take over some of the duties once handled by the health departments, which necessitates more personnel and space.
"Public health guidance is a moving target and has been for a long time," said SRVUSD's Koehne. "School districts are trying to pivot and adapt as new guidance and mandates come our way."
To add to the complexity of all this, the responsibility of contact tracing has recently shifted from county health departments to schools and school districts.
Each district has identified an individual or individuals responsible for contact tracing. PUSD, for example, has a COVID-19 liaison at every school who works with the district team and a pandemic services coordinator (French). At SRVUSD, a COVID task force at the district level is led by the assistant superintendent of business operations and facilities.
Students at all districts are surveyed regularly and schools have required a negative test result to return to school.
"We have a kid with a cold, and so failed the survey," Pleasanton parent Steve Paddon wrote on a social media site. "The process to then clear them for school is a) feeling better, b) no fever, and c) a doctor's clearance or a PCR or Molecular test."
"Everybody is backed up on testing," he continued, "so scheduling is two days out, plus however long the tests take to get results. So both of my daughters will likely miss a week of school for what is very likely a common cold. Rinse and repeat this over a normal winter and they are going to miss an awful lot of school ... yes, we do need a better process."
"One of the most challenging parts of our job is to balance the desire to keep all our students in school every day with the equal desire to keep them healthy and COVID-free," LVJUSD's Van Schaack said. "When in doubt, we have to lean to the side of safety and we occasionally end up quarantining students who (it may turn out) did not have a direct contact, simply because we are unsure and want to be cautious."
In some cases, there have been kinks in rolling out the new exposure protocols.
For example, although all Tri-Valley districts base their protocols for "close contact" on the same state policies, how it is explained -- and interpreted -- seems to vary widely.
The state protocols for when someone tests positive are complex and dependent on a variety of factors, including a student's vaccination status, mask use and symptoms. That has led to confusion and frustration among some parents, as they try to abide by the detailed requirements.
School districts have at times hit snags -- or have been criticized for decisions -- as they try to implement the health rules, which have changed substantially since last school year.
On Aug. 24, a group of students at SRVUSD's Charlotte Wood Middle School were identified as a close contact to someone who tested positive for COVID.
"Per county health requirements, in order to implement state requirements, for students to be on campus after they have been identified as a close contact, they are required to meet certain criteria which is determined according to their vaccination status and whether the contact was masked or unmasked," Christine Huajardo, SRVUSD assistant superintendent of educational services, wrote in an email to the CWMS community.
Some students were released from school on Aug. 24 because, according to district officials, they didn't have appropriate documentation on file -- namely a vaccination card. A few parents said children were divided into groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated, while others reported that some children were released without parental notification. The district denies both claims.
"It is true that not all parents spoke directly to a staff member," the email said about confirming vaccination status, "but in all cases, a school employee confirmed that the parent was contacted before the student was allowed to leave campus."
What happens when there is close contact with a student or staff member who tests positive is also not consistent and very confusing.
When CWMS parents and guardians were notified about the close contact of their student, the email said vaccinated students don't have to quarantine unless they show symptoms when both parties were wearing a mask. Unvaccinated students, though, must quarantine even when masks were worn, but can request a "modified quarantine" in which the exposed student can continue attending school if they are asymptomatic, continue masking and undergo twice weekly testing.
Extracurricular and community activities at school can continue after Day 7 if a test collected after Day 5 is negative and the student remains asymptomatic. (Day zero is the last date of exposure.)
Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore have guidelines for modified quarantine similar to San Ramon Valley's, except the return to extracurricular and community activities' timelines differ slightly. In Livermore, the student can return on Day 8 if a test collected after Day 6 is negative. Pleasanton students may return on Day 8 if a test collected after Day 5 is negative. Dublin will not allow the exposed student to attend extracurriculars for the entire 10 days.
Siblings of exposed students do not have to quarantine, but siblings of students who test positive do.
"We want parents to know how important it is for them to keep an eye out for symptoms and to keep their students home when they see possible signs of COVID," Van Schaack said.
"Everyone in our school district has a part to play in keeping our students safe and in school. Stay home if you're not feeling well, wear a mask when required, and get vaccinated if you're eligible," French said.
Vaccinations and testing
Only students ages 12 and up are currently eligible to be vaccinated, leaving the vast majority of local elementary-schoolers unvaccinated. While no district in the Tri-Valley requires students 12 and older to be vaccinated, teachers and staff must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15 or be tested weekly, per the California Department of Public Health's Aug. 11, 2021 health order.
According to Sarah Lopez, DUSD's director of communications and community engagement, staff who have not submitted a "COVID Vaccination Verification Form" are already required to test on a weekly basis.
Each district offers tests at the district offices; most districts offer testing at school sites and it is available for asymptomatic students and staff.
"Since the new school year began, we've administered over 1,300 tests for students," French said of PUSD. "The testing program is expanding on a weekly basis and we look forward to offering our students and staff more testing opportunities in the near future."
"We offer testing for unvaccinated employees at the district office and we test students at school sites," LVJUSD's Van Schaack said. "As of right now, the only students we test are those who are unvaccinated, without symptoms, were a direct contact to a confirmed positive case, and whose parents have provided permission."
DUSD students and staff can test any time, regardless of symptoms or exposure.
"Since we started offering COVID testing on Aug. 30, 2021, (test administration company) Predicine has administered 2,359 tests at our sites," said DUSD's Lopez.
According to Koehne, San Ramon Valley, the only Tri-Valley district in Contra Costa County, has aligned its policies with the Contra Costa Health Services and all SRVUSD athletes and coaches will now undergo twice weekly rapid COVID-19 testing.
"SRVUSD is providing access to twice weekly rapid testing for athletes after school at each of our high schools starting on Sept. 22," Koehne said. "We plan to expand the testing program to include all indoor extra-curricular activities so that these school activities can continue indoors. More information about indoor extra-curricular activities will be sent to families (the week of Sept. 20)."
"With the added responsibility of providing testing access and with contact tracing and case investigation now shifting from local health departments to schools and school districts, this has become a massive undertaking," Koehne said. "But we will keep moving forward as our primary goal is to keep kids in school to the best of our ability by limiting transmission of the virus."
Editor's note: Zoe Morgan, reporter at the Palo Alto Weekly, contributed to this story.