With the highly contagious omicron variant sweeping across the country, seemingly infecting fully vaccinated people, local public school districts are handing out COVID-19 tests and hoping to avert a spread on campuses following winter break.
Menlo School, a private school in Atherton that serves grades 6-12, decided to move all classes online for the first week back from winter break, having heard from many students they are testing positive over the last week, Head of School Than Healy told families in a Jan. 1 email. Staff will also be preparing more outdoor learning spaces on campus, since the virus spreads more easily indoors. He added that the move to distance learning should also be able to "capture the impact of large gatherings around the new year as well as travel."
Classes will be suspended on Friday so students can take PCR tests on campus.
Healy said the school plans to evaluate if it will reopen on a week-by-week basis, but he doesn't anticipate the shutdown will be long.
Sacred Heart Schools' Atherton campus, which has preschool aged through 12th grade students, also went remote for the first two days back to school to give students time to get tested, reported Elizabeth Nixon, associate director of communications and PR for the school, in an email. The school was set to resume classes in person on Thursday, Jan. 6, she said.
Classes at Woodside Priory, a private, Catholic Benedictine co-ed day and boarding school that serves grades 6-12 in Portola Valley, were held virtually this week. There was no school on Monday so students could be tested for COVID-19 on campus. The school has had just two positive COVID-19 cases on campus since September 2021, according to its website.
Local public school teachers reported that they're hopeful schools will be able to remain open during this surge.
"The news reports certainly have my constant attention," said John Davenport, a teacher at Corte Madera School and president of the Portola Valley Teachers Association, in an email the first day back at school from winter break on Monday. "That said, I'm pretty confident that the measures the district has put in place (making, testing, etc.) are sufficient to keep us safe and keep the school open."
Andy Stuart, a service learning and special education teacher at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, said on Monday, a day before students returned to campus, that he is excited to see his students and doesn't see another shutdown happening.
"I think kids need to be in school," he said. "There's not many places for teenagers to go during the day when school is in session. ... I feel like it's all going to be OK."
He did arrange an alternative work plan for one student with compromised health.
Dylan Shelley, a special education and history teacher at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, said the right choice was to reopen campuses after winter break.
"Lockdowns are horrible for the poor and working class; they're bad for kids," Shelley said. "As I understand omicron symptoms, it presents as a cold. I'm not planning on losing my mind about a cold. If you have comorbidities you have higher risks; that's why we have the vaccines."
Rapid test kits and beefed up safety measures
In anticipation of increased cases after gatherings, holiday travel and the emergent variant, the state distributed COVID-19 rapid tests to every K-12 public school student in California. The state gave the San Mateo County health department an initial distribution of 38,000 rapid test kits for students returning to class after the holidays, according to a health department press release.
Pre-omicron, local school districts saw relatively few cases among students and staff. For example, in the roughly 10,000-student Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD), most weeks during the fall semester, case counts were in the single digits, with at most 27 students testing positive in a single seven-day period (the first week back from summer break). From Dec. 27 to 31, 30 cases — 24 among students and six among staff, were reported to the high school district, according to its data dashboard.
Student cases over the holiday break cropped up in the Woodside Elementary School District, "almost all" caught by the free rapid tests the district gave families on Dec. 16 and 17, said Superintendent Steve Frank in a Monday email. Some 17 of its 365 students reported positive cases before school resumed Monday, he said.
Before winter break, students and staff in the Portola Valley School District (PVSD) each received two rapid tests (almost 600 test kits) through the state. Over winter break, the district received an additional 491 rapid test kits (one per student) and distributed them on Sunday, a day before classes resumed, at the district office.
The district hosts PCR testing of staff, students, families and community members every Monday from 3:15-6:15 p.m. at the district office annex, 4575 Alpine Road in Portola Valley. There's also mandatory PCR testing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for staff, along with students who opt-in.
Las Lomitas School District Superintendent Beth Polito said her two-school district is "juggling staffing impacts from positive cases" over break. She's hopeful Las Lomitas Elementary School in Atherton and La Entrada Middle School in Menlo Park can stay open.
The district distributed over 700 tests between the day before break and Monday morning. The district has onsite PCR testing and also provided One Medical memberships to all families and staff for the second year in a row to encourage regular testing and easy access to vaccines, Polito said.
The Sequoia district began handing out rapid tests to students on Monday. The district is also providing KN95 masks for staff and students, according to a Monday district newsletter.
The Ravenswood City School District offered testing for students, families, and staff on Monday "to identify positive cases to mitigate any spread before returning to school" on Tuesday, said Superintendent Gina Sudaria in an email.
"It is tough to feel confident with so much uncertainty, but I do remain optimistic as our staff and families make health and safety a priority," she noted. "In addition to the testing yesterday, we continue this week with our weekly testing at each site."
The district will also host vaccine clinics at its Ravenswood elementary schools next week for 5-11 year olds.
Palo Alto schools head less hopeful district can remain open
Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin said the district is going to do everything in its power to minimize the spread of the virus in schools, including providing Monday's testing to staff and students, but recognized that a spike in cases is inevitable.
"What's pretty predictable is we're going to have large numbers (of cases)," Austin said. "Anyone who's going to pretend that that's not the case is just lying."
The district tested 508 teachers and staff at the district office on Monday, Austin said.
Prior to the omicron variant taking hold, Palo Alto Unified saw relatively few cases among students and staff. Most weeks during the fall semester, case counts were in the single digits, with at most 11 students testing positive in a single seven-day period.
Only one special education classroom has been shut down this school year due to COVID-19 cases, Austin said. That's likely to change soon, with Austin predicting that classes will have to be closed in the coming weeks. If things get worse, full schools could shutter, he said.
Palo Alto Unified plans to limit closures as much as possible. Students impacted by closures will switch to online learning, Austin said.
A closure could happen for two reasons: at the state or county's behest due to high case numbers or because staff absences make it impossible to operate classes. The second, Austin said, appears more likely.
"I think the state and county are really going to try their best not to close schools, but there could be a day when we just can't staff them," Austin said.
New CDC guidelines and unchanged local guidelines
It's still unclear if new, more lax quarantine and isolation guidelines issued by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the end of December, will impact local schools' guidance to students and staff who test positive or are exposed to the virus.
The Sequoia district is following the state and county guidance, according to a Dec. 30 district email.
"SUHSD will maintain our current protocols and timelines until further notice from our county partners," Superintendent Darnise Williams said in the email.
County health spokesperson Preston Merchant said the state health department is working through the CDC guidance, and the county health department is "considering new recommendations as they come."
Under current guidance, students and staff who come in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 do not need to quarantine if they are vaccinated and not showing symptoms. If they are unvaccinated and come in close contact with someone with COVID-19 and both were wearing masks, they will quarantine for 10 to 14 days or continue attending school if they are not showing symptoms, get tested twice a week over a 10-day period and won't participate in any extracurricular activities, including sports or clubs.
If an unvaccinated person comes into close contact with someone who has COVID-19, and they were not wearing a mask, they must quarantine for at least 10 days since the last exposure. The quarantine can end after the seventh day if the individual is tested on day five from the date of the last exposure and the results are negative. Individuals must continue to self-monitor for symptoms for up to 14 days from the last known exposure and follow all health and safety protocols.
Last school year, the state stipulated that "schools will remain open unless at least 5% of the total number of students, staff and teachers test positive within a 14-day period, or if local health officials recommend closure," but no such guidance is in place this year.?
Decisions about school closures will be made by the schools and districts, in consultation with the county health department, but the state has made clear that there are no thresholds: "the process should be guided by local epidemiology, with particular attention paid to concern for in-school transmission. Operational factors may also be considered, including the ability to maintain sufficient teaching staff to provide in-person instruction," according to state guidance.
Austin of PAUSD raised concerns about what he characterized as a lack of guidance from Santa Clara County on how schools should respond to the omicron variant, including questions about what the school closure metrics will be.
"The county has been oddly quiet for about a month," Austin said, adding that it feels like the beginning of the pandemic, when school officials were scrambling for answers.
"None of us are health experts. We're just being told 'keep schools open,'" Austin said. "We can't answer all the questions that people have — it's just not possible."
Santa Clara County's COVID-19 media relations team said in a statement that Santa Clara County is aligned with the state's safety guidance for schools.
"Through the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the county hosts regular COVID-19 meetings with local districts, proactively communicates anytime the state of California provides new guidance, and reaches out as other relevant information becomes available," the county said. "Additionally, the Santa Clara County Office of Education is accessible whenever superintendents or schools require additional support."