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COVID surge's impact on schools

Districts pivot as guidelines are updated, protocols change

Lilley Nava places a self-administered swab in a test tube at a school test site. District officials say testing is key to their mitigation strategy after the recent surge of COVID cases. (Photo by Magali Gauthier.)

A new variant of COVID, omicron, made the first week of school following the winter break more than a little challenging.

Pre-omicron, Tri-Valley school districts saw relatively few positive COVID cases among students and staff. Most weeks during the fall semester, case counts were in the single digits. The easily-spread omicron variant changed that dramatically.

Acknowledging in-person learning is better for students academically and emotionally, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made it clear everything should be done to keep students in the classroom.

While some Bay Area school districts have grappled with going remote and increased absenteeism, Pleasanton Unified School District (PUSD) is planning for business as usual, albeit with a few adjustments.

PUSD Superintendent David Haglund confirmed at a Jan. 12 virtual community meeting that the district has no plans to revert all students to fully remote learning like they did in March 2020.

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"At this time, the state of California does not provide an opportunity to use remote instruction outside of the independent study model," Haglund said. "We do have the independent study model available for students and parents who elect to go that route, but we do not have the option to do remote learning."

Families drop off their children at Mohr Elementary School. (File photo)

At Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (LVJUSD), officials said they are hopeful that the current uptick in cases is temporary and that school closures won't be necessary.

"Recognizing the disruption and challenges created by distance learning, we will exhaust every possible resource to continue to keep students in school with a full schedule, every day," said Deputy Superintendent Chris Van Schaack.

He added, "Health officials have indicated that they believe the current surge to be short-term and that the decline in cases will likely be as rapid as the increase. Additionally, we are not seeing significant spread in our schools. Our contact tracing still indicates that the vast majority of student and staff COVID cases are from outside our school sites. This tells us that our internal protocols are working well."

LVJUSD returned from winter break on Jan. 3. Since returning, the district's daily absences have averaged between 12-20% of the student population. However, officials noted that not all absences are related to COVID. The district also said that absences for students prior to the break averaged between 5-7% with the occasional spike.

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"Like other districts across the county, we are experiencing higher student absence rates due to positive COVID test results or concerns about exposure to COVID on campus," said Chip Dehnert, Public Information and Community Relations Officer at Dublin Unified School District (DUSD).

San Ramon Valley Unified School District (SRVUSD) schools returned from the winter break on Jan. 11. The first week of classes saw a large majority of the district's more than 29,000 students enrolled in face-to-face classes in attendance during the first week of the spring term, with an average of 12% of the student population absent the first week of school. This is a higher number of absences overall than before the holiday break when the average student absences was roughly 3%.

PUSD elementary school students returned to class Jan. 10 and middle and high school students on Jan. 11. Absences the first week back from break averaged about 14% of the student population, which is higher than the pre-omicron average of 3%.

Of course omicron isn't spreading to only students.

Fairlands Elementary teacher Kylie Bower leads a lesson for her third-grade students. (File photo)

"We are working to fill an increased number of staff absences, not specific to teachers," said Patrick Gannon, PUSD's Coordinator of Communications and Community Engagement. "Our focus and priority is to cover classrooms and keep schools open."

The increase in staff absences mirrors the increase in student absences at PUSD. Before the break an average of 137 of its 1,405 staff members would be absent. The first week back at school the average was 193 -- a little less than 14% of the staff.

LVJUSD has had approximately 100 teacher absences related to COVID since returning from winter break, which is roughly 15% of the district's teaching staff. Officials noted that the percentage of teacher absences falls within the range of student absences, which they said is a reflection of the fact that, "what we are encountering in schools is a microcosm of the community."

Prior to the emergence of omicron, SRVUSD saw roughly 100 to 110 of its 1,476 teachers call out each day. The return to classes saw an uptick, according to data from the first four days of classes, with an average of approximately 150 teachers calling out each day, about 10% of the total teachers in the district.

Even as teacher absences increase because of illness or quarantine, districts are having an even more difficult time than usual finding enough substitutes for teachers and other staff positions.

Prior to the omicron surge, LVJUSD was already experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers, which continues to be the case. Officials said that to accommodate for the shortage, teachers have been subbing for each other during their prep periods when needed and administrators have been stepping in to sub as well.

"In the event that substitute positions are unfilled, the district utilizes other certificated staff (non-teachers) - teachers on special assignment, elementary preparation teachers, elementary counselors, site administrators, district office managers and regular classroom teachers during their preparation period to provide substitute coverage," said Ilana Israel Samuels, Director of Communication at SRVUSD.

District officials in the Tri-Valley and across the state are hoping Newsom's decision last week to temporarily loosen substitute teacher requirements will help ease staffing shortages at schools. The executive order allows substitutes to serve with only a temporary certificate instead of a substitute credential, be assigned to a class for up to 120 days and provides more flexibility for retired teachers to work as substitutes.

Preventing the spread

On Dec. 20, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that the omicron variant was highly transmissible and there was the potential for a rapid increase of infections.

To prepare, all four Tri-Valley school districts provided no-cost COVID-19 antigen home test kits, which included two rapid tests, to students returning to school after the holiday break. While testing was not required to return to school, it was encouraged.

Prior to releasing students for winter vacation, LVJUSD received approximately 15,000 test kits -- enough for every student and staff member from the California Department of Public Health. Tests were distributed to students and staff on Dec. 16, according to LVJUSD officials.

SRVUSD received and distributed 30,000 antigen test kits ahead of the return to classes on Jan. 11. They distributed 17,000 on the first of three days of planned distribution, and ran out by the middle of the second day, canceling the planned distribution day designated for families who'd been traveling over the holidays on Jan. 10.

PUSD Superintendent David Haglund visits with the second-grade class of Vintage Hills Elementary teacher Sophie Loughran-Smith. (Courtesy of PUSD)

PUSD pandemic services coordinator Kelly French said the district distributed approximately 14,000 at-home test kits from the state -- "one per student and staff member in the district," she said.

"Testing is a key part of our mitigation strategy," said Dehnert. "Besides the 13,000 rapid tests the state provided to us recently by the state (and distributed on Jan. 6), the district has been offering PCR tests since late August."

"To date, we have conducted over 20,000 PCR tests at district sites," he continued. "Since the beginning of this month, our testing rates have gone up dramatically. We would typically see 100 and something or 200 and something tests per day in 2021, but last week the daily (PCR) test average was 792. That's a big jump."

All the Tri-Valley districts offer on-site testing, which is more important than ever because whether more test kits will be provided by the state remains to be determined.

French said at the Jan. 12 meeting, "The at-home test kits are not as plentiful in the state of California as the professional kits are, so we do not have a supply issue with the professional kits, those are the ones being used at the testing centers."

The 14,000 the Pleasanton district distributed prior to the return to school, French explained, is "a one week's supply. So if you think about the scale of that, if we tried to offer that every week, the supply is not there at the state level," French added. "So, as much as we would like to do that, it's just not going to happen."

While LVJUSD is not expecting to receive any more testing kits from the state, the district is accepting home test kits as an acceptable way to return to school after isolation following a positive COVID result.

PUSD is requiring two supervised tests at either the district's testing center or a lab to return after being symptomatic. The district also shortened quarantine for staff to five days and can return to work after a negative test on day 5, "based on guidance from the state," Gannon said.

PUSD offers both rapid and PCR testing for COVID, but the district's pandemic response manager, Hannah Mestel, said the latter is "not a particularly useful tool in answering whether someone has COVID right now and needs to be isolated."

Other than testing, districts are implementing other measures to stop the spread. PUSD, for example, is currently expecting a shipment of KN95 or N95 masks from the state that will be made available to students and teachers.

Walnut Grove Elementary School students enjoy recess, adhering to the district’s rules on masking indoors and outdoors. (Courtesy of PUSD)

In October, every classroom and library in the Dublin district was outfitted with an air purifier (approximately 600 devices) "in an effort to reduce airborne contaminants, including particles containing viruses, in our schools," Dehnert said.

The state health department also recently changed the protocol for contact tracing.

LVJUSD's COVID Dashboard continues to report daily, week-to-date and cumulative numbers of positive COVID cases related to school exposure. It does not, however, reflect cases that occurred over the winter break unless discovered through school-sanctioned activities, such as a sports practice or competition.

"We are still contact-tracing and notifying parents. The biggest challenge is testing availability. Our modified quarantine on campus testing has, at times, not been able to keep up with demand. We have requested additional testing staff and supplies from CDPH and are hopeful they will be able to provide more resources. At-home test kits are largely unavailable in the community and community testing sites are overwhelmed," said Michelle Dawson, LVJUSD's Community Engagement Coordinator.

In a communication sent last Friday, SRVUSD updated families on a shift to "group tracing." Prior to this shift, caregivers would receive letters from schools indicating when students had close contact with anyone who'd tested positive for COVID.

"One of the key benefits of moving to the group contact tracing approach is that students may continue to take part in all aspects of K-12 schooling unless they develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19," the Jan. 14 announcement said.

Under SRVUSD's group tracing guidelines, caregivers will now be notified if a student is in the same indoor space, such a classroom or facility for other school activities, for a cumulative 15 minutes with someone who tested positive for COVID.

The district does not require that students get tested to continue in-person classes, as long as they are asymptomatic, but does recommend testing within three to five days of exposure.

"With increased diligence in masking, distancing and symptom awareness, we are confident we will meet this challenge without having to resort to dramatic measures such as school closures," Van Schaack said.

As of presstime, protocols on district websites were being changed to reflect updated guidance received last week from CDPH and the county health departments, and all asked for support and patience.

One constant among all districts is that the situation is fluid and staff is working to keep the community up to date as changes are made in an effort to keep students safely in classrooms.

Gina Channell Wilcox contributed to this story.

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COVID surge's impact on schools

Districts pivot as guidelines are updated, protocols change

by Cierra Bailey, Julia Baum and Jeanita Lyman / Pleasanton Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Jan 20, 2022, 4:45 pm

A new variant of COVID, omicron, made the first week of school following the winter break more than a little challenging.

Pre-omicron, Tri-Valley school districts saw relatively few positive COVID cases among students and staff. Most weeks during the fall semester, case counts were in the single digits. The easily-spread omicron variant changed that dramatically.

Acknowledging in-person learning is better for students academically and emotionally, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made it clear everything should be done to keep students in the classroom.

While some Bay Area school districts have grappled with going remote and increased absenteeism, Pleasanton Unified School District (PUSD) is planning for business as usual, albeit with a few adjustments.

PUSD Superintendent David Haglund confirmed at a Jan. 12 virtual community meeting that the district has no plans to revert all students to fully remote learning like they did in March 2020.

"At this time, the state of California does not provide an opportunity to use remote instruction outside of the independent study model," Haglund said. "We do have the independent study model available for students and parents who elect to go that route, but we do not have the option to do remote learning."

At Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (LVJUSD), officials said they are hopeful that the current uptick in cases is temporary and that school closures won't be necessary.

"Recognizing the disruption and challenges created by distance learning, we will exhaust every possible resource to continue to keep students in school with a full schedule, every day," said Deputy Superintendent Chris Van Schaack.

He added, "Health officials have indicated that they believe the current surge to be short-term and that the decline in cases will likely be as rapid as the increase. Additionally, we are not seeing significant spread in our schools. Our contact tracing still indicates that the vast majority of student and staff COVID cases are from outside our school sites. This tells us that our internal protocols are working well."

LVJUSD returned from winter break on Jan. 3. Since returning, the district's daily absences have averaged between 12-20% of the student population. However, officials noted that not all absences are related to COVID. The district also said that absences for students prior to the break averaged between 5-7% with the occasional spike.

"Like other districts across the county, we are experiencing higher student absence rates due to positive COVID test results or concerns about exposure to COVID on campus," said Chip Dehnert, Public Information and Community Relations Officer at Dublin Unified School District (DUSD).

San Ramon Valley Unified School District (SRVUSD) schools returned from the winter break on Jan. 11. The first week of classes saw a large majority of the district's more than 29,000 students enrolled in face-to-face classes in attendance during the first week of the spring term, with an average of 12% of the student population absent the first week of school. This is a higher number of absences overall than before the holiday break when the average student absences was roughly 3%.

PUSD elementary school students returned to class Jan. 10 and middle and high school students on Jan. 11. Absences the first week back from break averaged about 14% of the student population, which is higher than the pre-omicron average of 3%.

Of course omicron isn't spreading to only students.

"We are working to fill an increased number of staff absences, not specific to teachers," said Patrick Gannon, PUSD's Coordinator of Communications and Community Engagement. "Our focus and priority is to cover classrooms and keep schools open."

The increase in staff absences mirrors the increase in student absences at PUSD. Before the break an average of 137 of its 1,405 staff members would be absent. The first week back at school the average was 193 -- a little less than 14% of the staff.

LVJUSD has had approximately 100 teacher absences related to COVID since returning from winter break, which is roughly 15% of the district's teaching staff. Officials noted that the percentage of teacher absences falls within the range of student absences, which they said is a reflection of the fact that, "what we are encountering in schools is a microcosm of the community."

Prior to the emergence of omicron, SRVUSD saw roughly 100 to 110 of its 1,476 teachers call out each day. The return to classes saw an uptick, according to data from the first four days of classes, with an average of approximately 150 teachers calling out each day, about 10% of the total teachers in the district.

Even as teacher absences increase because of illness or quarantine, districts are having an even more difficult time than usual finding enough substitutes for teachers and other staff positions.

Prior to the omicron surge, LVJUSD was already experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers, which continues to be the case. Officials said that to accommodate for the shortage, teachers have been subbing for each other during their prep periods when needed and administrators have been stepping in to sub as well.

"In the event that substitute positions are unfilled, the district utilizes other certificated staff (non-teachers) - teachers on special assignment, elementary preparation teachers, elementary counselors, site administrators, district office managers and regular classroom teachers during their preparation period to provide substitute coverage," said Ilana Israel Samuels, Director of Communication at SRVUSD.

District officials in the Tri-Valley and across the state are hoping Newsom's decision last week to temporarily loosen substitute teacher requirements will help ease staffing shortages at schools. The executive order allows substitutes to serve with only a temporary certificate instead of a substitute credential, be assigned to a class for up to 120 days and provides more flexibility for retired teachers to work as substitutes.

Preventing the spread

On Dec. 20, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that the omicron variant was highly transmissible and there was the potential for a rapid increase of infections.

To prepare, all four Tri-Valley school districts provided no-cost COVID-19 antigen home test kits, which included two rapid tests, to students returning to school after the holiday break. While testing was not required to return to school, it was encouraged.

Prior to releasing students for winter vacation, LVJUSD received approximately 15,000 test kits -- enough for every student and staff member from the California Department of Public Health. Tests were distributed to students and staff on Dec. 16, according to LVJUSD officials.

SRVUSD received and distributed 30,000 antigen test kits ahead of the return to classes on Jan. 11. They distributed 17,000 on the first of three days of planned distribution, and ran out by the middle of the second day, canceling the planned distribution day designated for families who'd been traveling over the holidays on Jan. 10.

PUSD pandemic services coordinator Kelly French said the district distributed approximately 14,000 at-home test kits from the state -- "one per student and staff member in the district," she said.

"Testing is a key part of our mitigation strategy," said Dehnert. "Besides the 13,000 rapid tests the state provided to us recently by the state (and distributed on Jan. 6), the district has been offering PCR tests since late August."

"To date, we have conducted over 20,000 PCR tests at district sites," he continued. "Since the beginning of this month, our testing rates have gone up dramatically. We would typically see 100 and something or 200 and something tests per day in 2021, but last week the daily (PCR) test average was 792. That's a big jump."

All the Tri-Valley districts offer on-site testing, which is more important than ever because whether more test kits will be provided by the state remains to be determined.

French said at the Jan. 12 meeting, "The at-home test kits are not as plentiful in the state of California as the professional kits are, so we do not have a supply issue with the professional kits, those are the ones being used at the testing centers."

The 14,000 the Pleasanton district distributed prior to the return to school, French explained, is "a one week's supply. So if you think about the scale of that, if we tried to offer that every week, the supply is not there at the state level," French added. "So, as much as we would like to do that, it's just not going to happen."

While LVJUSD is not expecting to receive any more testing kits from the state, the district is accepting home test kits as an acceptable way to return to school after isolation following a positive COVID result.

PUSD is requiring two supervised tests at either the district's testing center or a lab to return after being symptomatic. The district also shortened quarantine for staff to five days and can return to work after a negative test on day 5, "based on guidance from the state," Gannon said.

PUSD offers both rapid and PCR testing for COVID, but the district's pandemic response manager, Hannah Mestel, said the latter is "not a particularly useful tool in answering whether someone has COVID right now and needs to be isolated."

Other than testing, districts are implementing other measures to stop the spread. PUSD, for example, is currently expecting a shipment of KN95 or N95 masks from the state that will be made available to students and teachers.

In October, every classroom and library in the Dublin district was outfitted with an air purifier (approximately 600 devices) "in an effort to reduce airborne contaminants, including particles containing viruses, in our schools," Dehnert said.

The state health department also recently changed the protocol for contact tracing.

LVJUSD's COVID Dashboard continues to report daily, week-to-date and cumulative numbers of positive COVID cases related to school exposure. It does not, however, reflect cases that occurred over the winter break unless discovered through school-sanctioned activities, such as a sports practice or competition.

"We are still contact-tracing and notifying parents. The biggest challenge is testing availability. Our modified quarantine on campus testing has, at times, not been able to keep up with demand. We have requested additional testing staff and supplies from CDPH and are hopeful they will be able to provide more resources. At-home test kits are largely unavailable in the community and community testing sites are overwhelmed," said Michelle Dawson, LVJUSD's Community Engagement Coordinator.

In a communication sent last Friday, SRVUSD updated families on a shift to "group tracing." Prior to this shift, caregivers would receive letters from schools indicating when students had close contact with anyone who'd tested positive for COVID.

"One of the key benefits of moving to the group contact tracing approach is that students may continue to take part in all aspects of K-12 schooling unless they develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19," the Jan. 14 announcement said.

Under SRVUSD's group tracing guidelines, caregivers will now be notified if a student is in the same indoor space, such a classroom or facility for other school activities, for a cumulative 15 minutes with someone who tested positive for COVID.

The district does not require that students get tested to continue in-person classes, as long as they are asymptomatic, but does recommend testing within three to five days of exposure.

"With increased diligence in masking, distancing and symptom awareness, we are confident we will meet this challenge without having to resort to dramatic measures such as school closures," Van Schaack said.

As of presstime, protocols on district websites were being changed to reflect updated guidance received last week from CDPH and the county health departments, and all asked for support and patience.

One constant among all districts is that the situation is fluid and staff is working to keep the community up to date as changes are made in an effort to keep students safely in classrooms.

Gina Channell Wilcox contributed to this story.

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