Delayed COVID tests, high student and staff absences strain schools’ return from winter break

San Diego County educators said the return to school from winter break has been hectic this week, with delays in COVID test shipments and higher than normal student and teacher absences as the number of COVID cases keeps rising.

The San Diego County Office of Education on Tuesday announced it received its first shipment of at-home rapid COVID tests from the state after shipping problems delayed their delivery past the winter break.

But the shipment was only half of what the county office is supposed to receive to distribute to schools. The county office said it received 196,560 testing kits, out of 401,870 that the state allocated to the county. Each kit contains two COVID tests.

County office officials said they don’t know when the rest of the kits will arrive.

Meanwhile many districts are reporting significantly greater student and staff absences, with some schools struggling to find enough staff to cover all their classes.

In San Diego Unified, 16 percent of students were absent Monday, the district’s first day back from winter break, said district spokesperson Mike Murad. That compares to a 7 percent absentee rate about the same time in 2020, before COVID. About 11 percent of educators were absent Monday.

The situation is bad largely because many school staff are testing positive for COVID and have to miss school, said Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Unified teachers union.

As was the case before the break, students are being consolidated into auditoriums and media centers because their teachers are out sick and there aren’t enough substitutes to cover their classes, Borden said.

“The schools are facing what many industries are facing during this Omicron surge. Just as flights are being canceled, classes are being canceled because there is no one to take the place of sick teachers,” Borden said.

In La Mesa-Spring Valley, about 15 percent of the district staff were absent on the district’s first day back Tuesday, because they were sick or in quarantine, said Superintendent David Feliciano. Meanwhile only 80 percent of students went to class — about 15 percentage points below normal, he said.

In Carlsbad Unified, 39 of the district’s 500 teachers were absent on the district’s first day Monday, but the district was able to find subs for all of them, said Superintendent Ben Churchill. Student attendance was 87 percent, about 7 percentage points lower than normal.

Students and staff were absent because they had tested positive, were waiting on COVID test results, or were unvaccinated but had close contact with someone who had COVID. Some families chose to keep their kids home to avoid potential COVID exposure, he said.

 Students were given at-home COVID-19 antigen rapid tests in San Diego to take a test before returning from winter break.

Students were given at-home COVID-19 antigen rapid tests in San Diego to take a test before returning from winter break.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In Poway Unified, there weren’t enough substitutes to cover all missing staff on Monday, so district office staff were deployed to schools to help fill in, district spokesperson Christine Paik said. The district also could not fully staff 24 of its 120 bus routes due to driver absences.

On Monday 3,700 Poway students were absent, compared to a normal Monday of 1,300 to 1,600 absences, she said.

“Definitely a challenging week, and we are so grateful for our staff who have been pitching in and helping out wherever they can so we can keep our schools open to welcome our students back,” Paik said.

Despite the staffing strains, districts said they did not have to close schools this week — yet — and they are determined to keep schools open.

“Thanks to our resilient staff, our district remains firmly committed to providing our students with as much in-person instruction as possible because that is what is best for our students,” said Grossmont Union High School District spokesperson Collin McGlashen.

What happened to the COVID at-home tests

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state public health department would be sending schools one or two rapid COVID tests for every public school student. Many schools are relying on COVID testing as a key strategy to help minimize the spread of COVID, particularly the recently dominant Omicron variant.

Many local districts, including San Diego Unified, returned to school this week. Students were supposed to use the tests at home during winter break and return to school if they tested negative but stay home if they tested positive.

The state sent at-home tests to some districts and charter schools directly, without going through county education offices, before winter break.

San Diego Unified was among a minority of local districts and charter schools that got the test kits early, along with Alpine, La Mesa-Spring Valley, Encinitas and others. The state delivered 308,260 at-home tests to San Diego County schools in December, before winter break, out of 2 million tests sent statewide, state officials said.

San Diego Unified distributed 98,000 kits, each containing two COVID tests, to students before winter break. From those, the district received 1,748 positive test results, a district spokesperson said.

But the state’s delivery of other test kits to other districts was delayed by winter storms and other shipping issues, state officials said.

The San Diego County Office of Education, which is in charge of distributing the kits to districts and charter schools, was told to expect the kits as early as Dec. 30, but it was never given an official delivery date, said county office spokesperson Music Watson.

Because of the delay, several local districts such as Carlsbad Unified, Grossmont Union High and Lemon Grove resumed classes this week without receiving any tests.

Sweetwater Union High and San Marcos Unified are starting next week and reported they had not received testing kits yet.

Austin Lee takes a self COVID test just outside the Carlsbad High School football stadium.

Austin Lee takes a self COVID test outside the Carlsbad High School football stadium on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Also taking the test is older sister, Autumn Lee, 18 (in foreground). (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The county education office said it will start distributing the kits it just received on Wednesday morning to districts and charter schools. Because it only received some of the kits it was promised, they will be distributed first-come, first-served, Watson said.

While they wait for the at-home tests, some districts are continuing to offer and expand their own COVID testing programs to meet the growing demand.

At a drive-thru COVID testing site held by Escondido Union Elementary on Monday, the district administered 345 PCR COVID tests, which is more than its previous one-day high of 65 tests. The district is working on expanding its testing program.

“This has become our new reality, responding to the COVID crisis,” said Michelle Breier, Escondido Union spokesperson. “Our primary focus has always been on teaching and learning in a safe and inclusive environment. We continue to do that by working to ensure that our schools stay open for our students.”

The state public health department said it has sent 8.2 million COVID tests to schools since Dec. 1, when California discovered its first case of the Omicron variant. By next week, when more districts return from winter break, the state expects to have delivered 10 million at-home COVID tests to schools.

The department said COVID testing is one of several “key weapons” in keeping schools safe.

“We must continue the policies that have made California schools among the safest in the nation,” the department said.

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