Omicron insists California schools fight to stay open

With students returning from winter vacation, schools across California are battling to stay open amid severe staff shortages, high student absences and infection rates fueled by the record wave of the Omicron variant .

The San Gabriel School District system closed a middle and high school Thursday and Friday. The Redondo Beach District is distributing rapid-result tests to families as quickly as possible. La Cañada Unified went online for a day, then imposed tests on students before returning to classes in person on Thursday. Montebello Unified scrambles to find tests and faces a severe shortage of substitute teachers to replace sick staff.

“If you have a ton of transmission like we have now, it affects everyone’s workforce,” LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a briefing Thursday. . The goal, she said, is to keep schools open, but the problem is more complex than just complying with campus security measures.

“If you don’t have enough staff to handle your students attending your school, then it won’t be safe for students to attend,” Ferrer said. “As with hospitals and the health system, staff shortage issues will really push [school] districts to make individualized decisions, based on who is available to help students with their in-person learning.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, held its second emergency closed-door Education Council meeting of the week as it prepares to open for classes on Tuesday. Teachers arrive on campus Monday. All students and staff must test prior to their return; the district has not released any progress reports on compliance to date or infection rates this week.

Problems emerged statewide as schools sorted to minimize disruption. In San Diego County, Helix Charter High in La Mesa is temporarily closed and switched to e-learning this week as many staff have tested positive for coronavirus infection. And Carmel Valley Catholic Cathedral has postponed its first day of school from Thursday to Monday because alarming numbers of students and staff have tested positive this week.

In northern California, security concerns have led to labor disputes. In San Francisco, a group of teachers refused to wait for a positive test result – or to see if the district’s security practices are sufficient. They announced plans for a work stoppage. A tally showed 616 of 3,600 teachers were absent as of Thursday, more than double the pre-pandemic average, according to the school system.

Across the Bay, Oakland Unified discouraged teachers from similar action on Friday, calling it “illegal.”

“We need to be clear: this action – in all schools where it occurs – is likely to significantly disrupt basic functioning and instruction and will have a negative impact on student safety,” officials said in a statement. .

None of the teachers’ unions in these districts endorsed the employment actions, but union leaders expressed dissatisfaction with the security measures. A coalition of unified employee unions in San Francisco has called for medical-grade masks, weekly tests for staff and students, and an extension of COVID sick leave for employees in ongoing negotiations.

In LA County, 50 of 80 school systems reopened this week after winter break. The vast majority remain open – and the closings announced are for brief periods – but not much has come easily as infection rates peak to date during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the rate of serious illness and death has not approached the peak of last winter’s outbreak, but health officials are concerned about the increase in hospital admissions.

Each confirmed infection means an isolation period of five to 10 days, straining school staff and disrupting student education – and increasing anxiety among educators and parents.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles school system, with more than 66,000 students in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, allowed principals to decide whether to delay reopening, briefly return to teaching online or both. Supt. Paul Escala told families in a letter: “To ensure that all schools can resume teaching in person, we need everyone’s cooperation” to monitor security measures. “The next few weeks are going to be crucial – we must remain vigilant and not let our guard down. “

When asked what he needed most immediately, the superintendent of Redondo Beach. Steven Keller replied: “A little more thanks from everyone at this time.” He praised the students and staff and said that “despite the stress of the wave” they “show tremendous flexibility and resilience”.

On Thursday, the district was giving families test children that had been provided by the state of California and then distributed to counties.

But not all districts have received the test kits, including Montebello Unified – the county’s third-largest school system with around 24,000 students – where classes are expected to start next week. Montebello superintendent Mark Skvarna said he was scrambling to find tests wherever he could, including calling cities served by the school system.

His district normally relies on a staff of around 250 regular replacements. That number fell to 60 – on paper. Skvarna is concerned that half of that number is actually available.

The explosion of cases and staff shortages are likely to force the district to postpone the start of the semester by a week, Skvarna said, adding that he sees little educational benefit in opening classes where large numbers of students are attending. students and teachers are lacking.

Still, he said, “I totally agree that we want our students to go to schools.”

In the Unified School District of Santa Ana, 324 teachers are in quarantine or have declared themselves ill, representing around 10% of the teaching staff, spokesman Fermin Leal said. Like so many other districts in the state, administrators and others take on the role of substitute teacher.

Several teachers at home in quarantine or isolation – without any symptoms or with minor symptoms – give distance lessons while their students watch on the big screen in their classrooms, while another member of staff attends in person.

So far, the district has not had to close any schools, Leal said, but testing students is a challenge. As of Thursday, the district had received from the state about 18,000 of the 43,000 promised test kits – which would have been about one per student. The state has had problems securing and distributing 6 million tests promised by Gov. Gavin Newsom in time to help campuses reopen more safely in January.

An alert about upcoming issues was issued early Thursday morning in the San Gabriel school system.

“As the students returned from winter vacation, there has been a significant increase in the number of students testing positive for COVID-19 at Gabrielino High School and Jefferson Middle School,” said Superintendent. Jim Symonds said. wrote in a message posted to parents, “The number of cases on these sites is indicative of the conditions of the epidemic.”

In high school, 25 students tested positive earlier in the week, and the contact tracing work was overwhelming on a campus of 1,600, where students change classes throughout the day, Symonds said in an interview. .

“With this Omicron the kids came back from the Christmas winter vacation and it just blew up,” he said. “It was very difficult. Many districts in LA County are struggling with the same problem. ”

The state test kits arrived on Monday, the same day the district welcomed students to campus.

“We wouldn’t have been in this situation if we had received these kits and been able to distribute them during the break,” Symonds said.

The local school board has chosen to close these two schools while keeping the others open. For the students concerned, the shutdown is total. There was to be no instruction for the rest of the week. Officials will figure out how to make up for lost teaching hours.

In the meantime, there will be contact tracing and increased sanitation, and teachers will “be planning lessons and contingency plans for the weeks to come.”

Students from both schools received rapid-result test kits: “Students must take the test before returning to school on Monday January 10 … Students and staff who test positive MUST stay at home. House [and] report the positive test result.

In Los Angeles Unified, testing sites are open all week, and for the most part parents reported little trouble getting in and out.

The Education Council did not announce any immediate new steps after its meeting on Thursday, but voted to continue to ban members of the public from attending meetings in person – citing coronavirus safety concerns. The discussion became even more out of reach when board members opted to strategize behind closed doors at both meetings this week.

During the public comments – made over the phone and broadcast live – several public speakers criticized the board for holding inaccessible and secretive meetings.

San Diego Union-Tribune editor Kristen Taketa contributed to this report.

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