With students returning from winter break, schools across California are fighting to stay open amid severe staffing shortages, high student absences and infection rates fueled by the record-breaking surge of the Omicron variant.
The San Gabriel school district system shut down a middle school and high school for Thursday and Friday. The Redondo Beach district is handing out rapid-results tests to families as fast as it can. La Cañada Unified went online for a day, then mandated tests for students before returning to in-person classes on Thursday. Montebello Unified is scrambling to find tests and faces a critical shortage of substitute teachers to fill in for sick staff.
"If you have a ton of transmission like we have now, it affects everybody's workforce," L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said at a Thursday briefing. The goal, she said, is to keep schools open, but the issue is more complex than simply following safety measures on campus.
"If you don't have enough staff to manage your students who are attending your school, then it won't be safe for students to attend," Ferrer said. "As with the hospitals and the healthcare system, staffing shortage issues are really going to force [school] districts to make individualized decisions — based on who's available to help support students with their in-person learning."
Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest school system, held its second, closed-session emergency Board of Education meeting of the week as it prepares to open on Tuesday for classes. Teachers arrive on campus Monday. All students and staff must test before they return; the district has released no progress report on compliance to date or infection rates this week.
Problems have emerged across the state as schools triage to minimize disruption. In San Diego County, Helix Charter High in La Mesa is closed temporarily and switched to online learning this week because so many staff members tested positive for a coronavirus infection. And Cathedral Catholic High in Carmel Valley postponed its first day of school from Thursday to Monday because an alarming number of students and staff tested positive this week.
In Northern California, safety concerns led to labor strife. In San Francisco, a group of teachers refused to wait for a positive test result — or to see if district safety practices are sufficient. They announced plans for a sickout. A tally indicated 616 of 3,600 teachers were absent Thursday, more than twice the pre-pandemic average, according to the school system.
Across the Bay, Oakland Unified discouraged teachers from a similar job action on Friday, calling it "illegal."
“We need to be clear: this action — at whichever schools it occurs — is likely to significantly disrupt basic operation and instruction and will negatively impact the safety of students,” officials said in a statement.
Neither teachers union in those districts endorsed the job actions, but union leaders expressed dissatisfaction with safety measures. A coalition of San Francisco Unified employee unions has asked for medical-grade masks, weekly testing for staff and students and an extension to the COVID sick leave for employees in ongoing negotiations.
Across L.A. County, 50 of 80 schools systems reopened this week after winter break. The vast majority are staying open — and announced closures are for brief periods — but little is coming easy as infection rates reach their highest level yet during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the rate of serious illness and death has not approached the peak of last winter's surge, but health officials are worried about rising hospital admissions.
Every confirmed infection means a five- to 10-day isolation period, straining school staff and disrupting students' education — and elevating anxiety among educators and parents.
The school system for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with more than 66,000 students in L.A., Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, has allowed school leaders to decide whether to delay reopenings, return briefly to online instruction or both. Supt. of Schools Paul Escala told families in a letter: "To ensure all schools can resume in-person instruction, we need everyone’s cooperation" in following safety measures. "The next few weeks are going to crucial — we must remain vigilant and not let down our guard."
When asked what he immediately needed most, Redondo Beach Supt. Steven Keller replied: "A little more grace from everyone right now." He praised students and staff and said that "despite the stress of the surge" they are "showing tremendous flexibly and resilience."
The district on Thursday was giving families test kids that had been provided by the state of California and then distributed through counties.
But not all districts have received the test kits, including Montebello Unified — the county's third-largest school system with about 24,000 students — where classes are scheduled to start next week. Montebello Interim Supt. Mark Skvarna said he is scrambling to find tests wherever he can, including by calling cities the school system serves.
His district normally relies on a workforce of about 250 regular substitutes. That number is down to 60 — on paper. Skvarna worries that maybe half that number are actually available.
The explosion of cases and staffing shortages is likely to compel the district to push back the start of the semester by one week, Skvarna said, adding that he saw little educational benefit to opening classes that are missing high numbers of students and teachers.
All the same, he said, "I fully agree that we want our students in schools."
In the Santa Ana Unified School District, 324 teachers are in quarantine or have called in sick, representing about 10% of teaching staff, spokesman Fermin Leal said. Like so many other districts throughout the state, administrators and others are taking on the role of substitute teacher.
Several teachers at home in quarantine or isolation — with no or minor symptoms — are conducting class remotely as their students watch on a big screen in their classrooms, while another staff member assists in person.
So far, the district has not had to close down schools, Leal said, but testing students is a challenge. By Thursday, the district had received from the state about 18,000 of 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 trouble ahead went out early Thursday morning in the San Gabriel school system.
"As students have returned from winter break, there has been a significant uptick in the number of students testing positive for COVID-19 at Gabrielino High School and Jefferson Middle School," Supt. Jim Symonds wrote in a posted message to parents. "The number of cases at these sites is indicative of outbreak conditions."
At the high school, 25 students tested positive early in the week, and the work of contact tracing was overwhelming on a campus of 1,600, where students change classrooms throughout the day, Symonds said in an interview.
“With this Omicron, the kids came back from Christmas winter break and it just exploded,” he said. “It’s been very challenging. Many districts throughout L.A. County are struggling with the same issue."
Testing kits from the state arrived Monday, the same day that the district welcomed students back to campus.
“We wouldn't have been in this situation had we received those kits and were able to distribute them over break,” Symonds said.
The local school board opted to close those two schools while keeping others open. For the affected students, the shutdown is total. There was to be no instruction for the remainder of the week. Officials will work out how to make up the lost instructional hours.
In the meantime, there will be contact tracing and heightened sanitation, and teachers will "plan lessons and contingency plans for the coming weeks."
Students at both schools have been provided with rapid-results test kits: "Students are expected to test before returning to school on Monday, Jan. 10 ... Students and staff who test positive MUST remain home [and] report the positive test result."
In Los Angeles Unified, testing sites are open all week and, for the most part, parents have reported few problems getting in and out.
The Board of Education announced no immediate new steps after its Thursday meeting but did vote to continue to bar members of the public from attending meetings in person — citing coronavirus safety concerns. The discussion became further out of reach when board members opted to strategize behind closed doors at both meetings this week.
During public comments — made by phone and broadcast live — several public speakers criticized the board for having inaccessible and secret meetings.
San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Kristen Taketa contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.