Omicron stresses California schools in fight to stay open

As students return from winter break, schools across California are struggling to stay open amid severe staffing shortages, high student absences and increased infection rates as the Omicron variant surge continues to sweep through the region.

The San Gabriel school system has 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. Montebello Unified is scrambling to find tests and faces a critical shortage of substitute teachers to fill in for sick staff. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, is having its second, closed-session emergency Board of Education meeting of the week as it prepares for opening on Monday.

Similar problems have emerged across the state. In San Diego County, Helix Charter High in La Mesa is closing temporarily and switching to online learning for the rest of this week because too many of its staff have tested positive for a coronavirus infection. And Cathedral Catholic High in Carmel Valley postponed its first day of school from Thursday to Monday because many students and staff tested positive at on-campus testing conducted this week.

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. That district’s teachers union has not endorsed the job action but has criticized district safety measures.

Across L.A. County, 50 of 80 schools systems reopened this week after winter break. The vast majority appear to be staying open, but nothing 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.

At 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 school districts throughout the state, administrators are taking on the role of substitute teacher.

“We’re having our administrators, our principals, whoever has a teaching credential on staff to kind of fill in as best they can,” Leal said. “It is quite a challenge.”

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.

When asked what he immediately needed most, Redondo Beach Supt. Steven Keller replied: “A little more grace from everyone right now.”

He added: “Despite the stress of the surge, our students and staff are happy to be starting the new year in person and are showing tremendous flexibly and resilience in adhering to all protocols.”

Even so, the number of infections appears to have risen fast in Redondo Beach, a common theme across schools, reflecting high overall positivity rates.

The district on Thursday was handing out test kits to families 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 half that number are actually available.

Other districts face similar staffing shortages and are relying on administrators and other out-of-class personnel to cover classes.

An alert about trouble ahead went out quickly 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.”

The local school board opted to close those two schools while keeping others open. For the affected students, the shutdown is total. There will 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, 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, January 10th… Students and staff who test positive MUST remain home [and] report the positive test result.”

Los Angeles Unified officials decided this week to require a negative test as a condition for a return to campus. Testing sites are open all week and, for the most part, parents have reported few problems getting in and out.

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