Bay Area Schools Hold On With In-Person Plans As Omicron Rises And Parents Worried

Bay Area students will return to schools starting Monday after spending two weeks with family and friends or even traveling to other states and countries just as the omicron wave hits California.

The combination of a huge increase in COVID-19 cases and exposure during the holidays has left families and teachers concerned about the return to in-person learning in the coming days.

But pandemic experts, health officials, Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Biden know the way to go: test, mask, and keep teaching in person.

“Nothing has changed,” said Dr George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert from the UCSF of the reopened schools. The general position is “do not touch this dial”.

That doesn’t mean the status quo will be easy, with state-promised test kits arriving after school starts and classrooms cold through open windows to increase ventilation.

Given the devastating academic and mental health impact of distance learning on students, closing classrooms has become “the third rail of education policy,” Rutherford said, adding that preschools should not temporarily switch to virtual learning like many universities and state colleges. have.

“Schools should approach omicron with caution – but NOT with fear, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a tweet on Tuesday. “Just like we teach in the classroom, we can learn from past experiences, trust science, and use tools like the test to stay and immunization to keep schools safe and open. “

Despite the omicron variant, there is little to no talk of a return to virtual learning in Bay Area school districts.

In a joint statement with teacher and school employee unions, the state PTA, California school administrator and superintendent associations, and charter school officials, Newsom reiterated its commitment to keep schools open.

Local education and health officials in the region echoed the state’s position.

“We need to do everything we can to ensure that students continue to attend schools safely,” San Francisco health officer Dr. Susan Philip said in a statement Wednesday. “The impacts on student mental health due to social isolation far outweigh the challenges of in-person learning. “

There will be challenges, however, officials said.

The goal for many districts and heads of state is for students and staff to get tested or self-tested at least once before returning to class.

In Oakland, officials distributed test kits to schools ahead of winter break with instructions on how to use them before returning to school. Marin County did the same.

“It’s a simple concept,” said Dr Matt Willis, Marin County Health Unit, adding that 96,000 tests had been distributed. “Those who are positive will not come to school and will isolate themselves. “

Testing is not mandatory, but strongly encouraged.

The county requested the kits in early December from the state to plan what Willis calls the “testapalooza.” Families and staff will report the results through an online program and, if they are positive, will also call the schools.

District leaders work on contingency plans to deal with staff absences related to illness or quarantine.

“The biggest concern would be the staff shortage due to the isolation,” said Willis, which could lead to the remoteness of some classrooms, but not entire schools or districts.

Schools in the Bay Area and the state are already grappling with a replacement shortage when educators are absent due to COVID-19 or other reasons, forcing administrators to intervene or teachers to forgo a planning period to cover other classrooms. Other workplaces, including hospitals, have faced similar concerns.

In addition, not all districts have the necessary resources for this type of universal test.

State health officials said they sent 2 million home tests – only enough for about a third of K-12 students – and more in the coming weeks despite the commitment Newsom to make testing available to 6 million people. children in public schools “as they return to class after winter break”.

San Francisco school officials said they will not receive the state’s self-test kits for at least a few days after school starts on Monday. In the meantime, the district has increased the number of mobile testing sites starting on Sunday and is strongly encouraging students to get tested.

“We have shared several opportunities with families by phone, text and email to get tested and immunized,” said district spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

San Francisco middle school teacher John Lisovsky said he was “super concerned” about omicron, but didn’t want to see schools closed again.

“I don’t think distance learning can work, I don’t approve of it,” said Lisovsky, who teaches at Francisco Middle School, adding that he was concerned about staff absences, especially one. potential shortage of security assistants given persistent behavioral issues. of the pandemic. This has included fighting, mask resistance and even spitting on teachers.

“If our school has no security it’s a total collapse,” he said. “It’s a horrible situation and there is no right answer.”

In Albany, mom Leila Knox isn’t worried about sending her 9th grade daughter to school next week.

“I think we have done everything we can as a community,” she said, noting the high vaccination rate in the city of East Bay and the mitigation measures underway in schools. “In a way, schools provide a safe haven and a controlled environment to prevent the spread of new diseases. “

She worries about decisions made on the basis of fear rather than science and expert advice. Some parents are calling for schools to be closed based on a reported case, while those in a few districts have urged children known to be at risk to stay home despite negative tests and vaccinations, which is wrong. advice from state and federal health officials.

Albany Superintendent Frank Wells, for example, in a letter home Wednesday, told families traveling on Saturday or Sunday that they “may consider” keeping their children at home for a few days in case symptoms develop. would appear, then take a quick mid-week test before returning. at school.

Such advice could cause students to miss school when official health guidelines say they should go, experts said.

Federal, state and local health authorities have not recommended post-travel quarantine for those who are fully vaccinated. Cardona spoke out against unnecessary interruptions to learning in his tweet, noting that if someone is vaccinated and exposed, they should only quarantine if they are positive.

“I think fear tends to guide decision making for some reason here,” Knox said. “We’re almost too awake for our own good. “

Jill Tucker is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: jtucker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jilltucker

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