Santa Clara County leaders urge schools to stay open

Despite a staggering rise in COVID-19 cases and ongoing testing shortages, Santa Clara County leaders made clear late Friday that school districts should not revert to online learning.

In a joint statement, Public Health Director Dr. Sara Cody and Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan urged school districts to “find ways to co-exist and to live with COVID” instead of going remote amid a nationwide surge of the omicron variant.

The two high-ranking officials weighed in after a chaotic week for Bay Area public schools that saw a spike in case numbers, staff shortages, campus shutdowns and a large protest. But even the current hardships facing districts in the region would pale in comparison to the consequences of online instruction, they warned.

“We’ve learned that in-person education is what (students) need, and remote learning doesn’t support their mental health, emotional health and academic well-being nearly the way that in-person learning does,” Cody said in the video statement released Friday evening.

She and Dewan reminded districts that California stopped allowing schools to offer online instruction instead of in-person class at the end of last June. School sites should instead lean on “multiple layers of risk-mitigation strategies” to limit the virus’ spread, Dewan said.

“It remains critically important to use all of the proven layers of protection: masking, such as double-masking, vaccinations, booster shots for those who are eligible, testing and remaining home when sick to prevent further spread,” Dewan said.

Dr. Mary Ann Dewan, superintendent of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, listens to a speaker during a meeting at Santa Clara County Office of Education in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Some schools had not waited for the official guidance. Milpitas Unified, a district with more than 10,000 enrolled students in Santa Clara County, announced Friday it would move to online learning until Jan. 18 so that students had enough time to finish 10-day quarantine periods if they had tested positive for COVID-19.

Hayward Unified decided to shift to virtual instruction for the same duration late Friday evening, with the school board’s lone dissenting voter saying she would prefer the district go online for a whole month instead.

Earlier in the week, West Contra Costa Unified shut down all 54 of its campuses through Monday due to widespread cases, though it doesn’t plan to offer remote education while closed.

And with over 500 teachers absent and a dozen campuses closed due to staffing shortages, Oakland Unified teachers staged a “sickout” on Friday, holding a car caravan to call on the district to shift online for two weeks. They also demanded that the district mass-distribute N95 masks to school sites.

A spokesman for Oakland Unified later called the protest illegal and defended existing safety measures.

Cody and Dewan did not address specific situations unfolding at school districts in Santa Clara County, instead arguing more broadly for a “central goal” of giving students a “solid education.”

“We are centering our efforts on ensuring that our kids remain in schools for in-person learning,” Cody said.

Most Bay Area school districts had left remote learning in the winter and spring months last year when COVID-19 cases began to decline from a holiday season surge. Even districts that hedged the falling transmission rates with hybrid learning models were fully reopen by the start of the current school year.

That was before an unprecedented spike in case numbers caused by the more contagious but less severe omicron variant. The ongoing surge has placed a strain on testing supplies, forcing residents to wait as long as four hours to submit nasal swabs that often take days to yield results. And studies increasingly show that rapid antigen tests, which produce faster results, are fallible.

California health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consistently advocated for vaccinations, regular testing and other safety measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission on school campuses. But they have also stressed that in-person learning remain a top priority.

In its official guidance, the state Department of Public Health notes that school districts should “offer and provide full in-person instruction to all students safely… even if pandemic dynamics shift throughout the school year, affected by vaccination rates and the potential emergence of viral variants.”

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