With students returning from the winter break, schools across California are struggling to stay open amid severe staff shortages, high student absenteeism, and increased infection rates as the surge in the Omicron variant continues to sweep the area.
The San Gabriel school system has closed a middle school and high school for Thursday and Friday. The Redondo Beach District is distributing rapid tests to families as soon as possible. Montebello Unified is looking for tests and faces a critical shortage of substitute teachers to fill out sick staff. Los Angeles Unified, the second largest school system in the country, is holding its second, closed emergency session of the education committee of the week as it prepares to open on Monday.
Similar problems have arisen across the country. In San Diego County, Helix Charter High in La Mesa is temporarily closing and switching to online learning for the remainder of this week as too many of its employees tested positive for coronavirus infection. And Carmel Valley’s Cathedral Catholic High has moved its first day of school from Thursday to Monday because many students and staff tested positive in the on-campus tests conducted this week.
In San Francisco, a group of teachers refused to wait for a positive test result – or see if the district’s safety practices are adequate. They announced plans for a sick leave. The district teachers’ union did not endorse the job campaign, but criticized the district’s security measures.
Across L.A. County, 50 out of 80 school systems reopened this week after the winter break. The vast majority appear to be staying open, but nothing is going to be easy as infection rates hit their highest ever level during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the rate of serious illness and death has not peaked from last winter, but health officials are concerned about rising hospital admissions.
Every confirmed infection means a five- to ten-day isolation phase that stresses the school staff and disrupts the education of the students – and increases anxiety among educators and parents.
In the Santa Ana Unified School District, 324 teachers are in quarantine or have called in sick, representing about 10% of the teaching staff, said spokesman Fermin Leal. As in so many other school districts across the country, the boards of directors act as substitute teachers.
“We have our administrators, our school principals, anyone who has a staff instructor rating that they fill out as best they can,” Leal said. “It’s quite a challenge.”
Several teachers at home in quarantine or isolation – with little or no symptoms – conduct lessons remotely, while their students watch on a big screen in their classrooms while another member of staff helps in person.
So far, the district has not had to close any schools, Leal said.
When asked what he needed most, Redondo Beach Supt replied. Steven Keller replied, “Now a little more grace from everyone.”
He added: “Despite the stress of the increase, our students and staff are excited to start the new year in person and show tremendous flexibility and resilience in adhering to all protocols.”
Even so, the number of infections in Redondo Beach appears to have increased rapidly, a common theme across all schools that reflects a high overall rate of positivity.
The district on Thursday distributed test kits to families that were provided by the state of California and then distributed across the districts.
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 slated to begin next week. Montebello interim main. Mark Skvarna said he is making an effort to find tests wherever he can, including calling cities that serve the school system.
His district typically has a workforce of around 250 regular representations. That number has dropped to 60 – on paper. Skvarna fears that half of this is actually available.
Other districts face similar staffing shortages and rely on administrators and other staff outside of class to cover class.
A warning about impending problems quickly went off in the San Gabriel school system.
“As students returned from the winter break, the number of students who tested positive for COVID-19 at Gabrielino High School and Jefferson Middle School has increased significantly,” Supt said. Jim Symonds wrote in a message posted the parents. “The number of cases at these locations is an indication of the conditions of the outbreak.”
The local school board decided to close these two schools while others remain open. The shutdown is total for the students concerned. There are no classes for the rest of the week. The officials will figure out how to make up for the lost lessons.
In the meantime, there will be a contact tracing, hygiene increased and teachers will “plan lesson and emergency plans for the coming weeks”.
Rapid test kits were provided to students in both schools: “Students are expected to return to school on Monday 10 January … Students and staff who test positive MUST stay at home [and] report the positive test result. “
Los Angeles Unified officials decided this week to require a negative test as a condition for returning to campus. The test sites are open all week and the parents have for the most part reported a few problems getting in and out.