Getting COVID-positive Bay Area students back to school

Thousands of kids stayed home from school Wednesday after COVID-19 tests provided over the holidays turned up infections across the state. But how and when those students — and many teachers — will be able to return is a much bigger question.

California health officials recently adopted new federal guidance that shortened the recommended COVID-19 isolation and quarantine period from 10 days to five for people who had tested positive but are symptom-free and test negative after five days. Schools are expected to shift to that shorter timeline but haven’t yet.

For now, students have a few options to return to school after testing positive for the virus. They can bring in a negative PCR test result, if they can get one, or complete a full 10-day quarantine or provide a doctor’s note to return to school, according to current state and local health guidelines. Some districts are allowing negative antigen tests — but not tests taken at home.

Meanwhile, the state is struggling to get the promised millions of at-home rapid tests out to schools quickly enough.

“I’ve been told there are delays caused by weather,” State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’re making efforts around the clock trying to get this backlog addressed.”

San Jose Unified, for example, stopped distributing those tests Monday, and the district is unsure if and when it will get any more. San Francisco Unified just received a shipment of rapid tests late Tuesday from the state and is preparing to deliver them to each school to hand out to students. In a statement Wednesday, the labor union that represents teachers in the district said more than 620 San Francisco educators were out on Tuesday, “exacerbating an existing staffing crisis that puts the city’s students at a disadvantage.”

Districts such as Oakland and Berkeley Unified did receive their at-home tests on time, allowing those districts to identify hundreds of positive student cases before their classes resumed Monday from winter break.

To meet the increasing need for PCR tests, schools across the region are scrambling to increase testing sites and bring kids and teachers back to class promptly.

Hundreds of kids tested for the virus at school-hosted sites across the region this week.

Students exposed to someone with COVID-19 are required to be tested and may have to isolate from other students for a few days, depending on their test results and whether they are symptomatic.

At the San Jose Unified District Office, Verona Nunez said she tried to book an appointment at Kaiser Permanente for her two sons — who attend schools in the district — after their dad tested positive for the virus, but she couldn’t find one until Jan. 12. So she brought them to the district office for tests Tuesday.

One of the boy’s results came back positive, and she was still waiting for the other’s results.

“They’ve been out for two weeks already” because of the holidays, Nunez said of her sons, “and now they’re going to miss at least another week.”

They’ll have to bring in a negative result from a PCR test before returning to class. “But the district doesn’t test on Saturdays,” Nunez said. “The soonest appointment we could get with Kaiser is the 12th, but they need a negative PCR test to go back, so we’ll have to come back next Monday.”

Jennifer Maddox, a spokeswoman for the San Jose Unified District, said the district might increase the number of testing sites it offers after seeing an overwhelming need and longer lines than usual at its sites this week. The district currently offers PCR testing during the school week at three locations.

Some districts are waiting to find out if they can update their protocols to allow them to use results from the rapid test kits they expect to receive from the state to allow kids back to school, said Ilana Samuels, a spokeswoman for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

With thousands of kids out of school this week, school officials, state leaders and parents are concerned about further learning loss and mental health risks from the pandemic.

Thurmond said Tuesday that state leaders and school officials are committed to keeping schools open and testing students as quickly as possible. San Francisco Superintendent Vince Matthews shared a similar sentiment in a letter to the community on Wednesday.

“In-person learning offers the best form of instruction for our students,” Matthews wrote, “and even as the pandemic continues, we believe school remains a safer place for our students considering the harmful effects of social isolation and learning loss.”

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