Marin schools shuffle staff to cover COVID-19 teacher quarantines

Despite dozens of students and staff at home due to positive COVID-19 infections, most Marin schools were hanging tough in the first week back to classes after holiday break.

“We’re not closing schools, even if we had one school with 20 teachers out,” Jim Hogeboom, superintendent of the San Rafael City Schools District, said Thursday. “Our No. 1 priority is to keep schools open.”

Hogeboom said the San Rafael district, like others in Marin, is using substitute teachers, principals, administrators and coaches to fill in for teachers who are infected with COVID-19 and staying home. Some schools in the district are combining classes if they can’t find staffing, he said.

“We need kids to be in class,” Hogeboom said. “Kids learn better in class, and having the kids at home puts an undue burden on parents.”

As of Thursday, the San Rafael district had a total of 209 students and 23 teachers and staff out due to positive at-home COVID-19 test results, according to Christina Perrino, district spokesperson.

Those and other positive cases were part of results reported last week from Marin’s expansive at-home rapid COVID-19 testing program. The test kits were given out to all 47,000 Marin public and private school families and staff members before the holiday break, with instructions to use one of the tests the day before returning to school.

As of Thursday, out of 37,000 test results reported between Dec. 29 and Jan. 4, there were 1,341 positive cases, said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin public health officer.

“This has been an important way to make sure those infected people don’t enter schools,” Willis said at Thursday’s webinar with the Marin school community. “We’re starting off on the right foot.”

Willis said keeping schools open remains “top priority” for him and the rest of the county public health and education teams.

The results represents a 3.6% positivity rate. That means that in a crowd of 100 people, between about three or four individuals are infected and could be spreading the virus. For that reason, the county is limiting all school gatherings, indoors and outdoors, to a maximum of 50 people.

Meanwhile, other Marin school districts are also coping with staffing shortages — including those at the highest levels.

Brett Geithman, superintendent of the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District, said he developed mild COVID-19 symptoms on Dec. 28 and tested positive on Dec. 29.

“Being that I’m vaccinated and boosted, I was a bit surprised that I tested positive,” Geithman said Thursday in an email.  He said he began his isolation period on Dec. 29.

“I tested again on Day 7 when the new guidance went into effect,” he said. The Day 7 test was still positive.

“Therefore, I have to serve the full 10-day isolation period before returning to work,” he said.

Despite his own quarantine, the Larkspur-Corte Madera district is covering staff shortages with substitute teachers, including “full-time roving subs that we’ve hired on since the beginning of in-person school,” Geithman said.

The district had 92 students and 17 staff members absent as of Thursday, he said.

“The roving sub strategy has greatly assisted in our ability to cover absences with highly qualified educators,” he said.

“Additionally, we are fortunate to be a community funded school where we have specialist and support positions that can cover immediate staffing needs,” Geithman added. “I’m proud of how our district is tackling these issues by working collaboratively and creatively.”

At the Mill Valley School District, there were 85 students and four staff members out as of the first day of school on Monday, said Anna Russell, district spokesperson.

“To ensure appropriate staffing in our classrooms, we have been able to use substitutes, administrators and other certificated staff to fill in,” Russell said in an email.

At Novato Unified School District, there were 35 staff members and 249 students out with COVID-19 related absences, said Leslie Benjamin, district spokesperson.

“This represents about a 3.4% positivity rate,” she said.

At The Ross Preschool, meanwhile, officials became concerned when they saw 22.5% of their students either isolating or quarantining due to a household COVID-19 exposure over the holiday break, said David Allen-Hughes, head of school. The preschoolers are not eligible for the vaccines, which are only offered to children ages 5 and older.

The 22.5% of students in quarantine was in sharp contrast to the preschool’s previous experience, he said.

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