As thousands of kids around the Bay Area return to class this week following a winter break marred by the coronavirus, COVID-19 tests that schools provided over the holidays are turning up hundreds of infections among Bay Area students and teachers — and keeping them from bringing the virus back to campus.
San Jose Unified School District students lined up for PCR tests and headed back to classrooms Tuesday, while school administrators in Oakland and Berkeley, where kids returned the day before, touted the success of rapid at-home tests that prevented hundreds of students and teachers from coming to school sick on Monday.
“We are pleased to see this testing regimen work the way we hoped it would, keeping sick people at home,” said Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell.
The intense focus on testing students and teachers for COVID before they return to school is part of a major effort across the state to curb the spread of what’s become a record surge of cases across California fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant — and to keep students in the classroom. With a few exceptions, most Bay Area campuses reopened this week.
The Oakland school district said Tuesday that teachers, students and their families had reported 21,000 results from at-home tests and identified 472 positive cases — 396 among students, 64 among staff and 12 among family members. Combined with other testing over the winter break, the district reported a total of 920 infections among students or staff.
At Berkeley Unified School District, of 7,687 students and staff who uploaded test results, 227 of them had tested positive, public information officer Trish McDermott said. On-campus surveillance testing, available since the fall, turned up an additional six positive cases Monday, she said.
“The at-home testing kept a lot of COVID out of our schools,” McDermott said. “Their positive status was determined before they set foot on a campus. We think that’s a system that works.”
San Jose Unified was still waiting for results from its at-home testing rollout late Tuesday. About 50 people at a time who didn’t have access to other tests lined up to get swabbed at the San Jose Unified district office on the first day of school Tuesday morning, a higher number than normal, spokeswoman Jennifer Maddox said. She said the turnaround for a test is 24 hours or less, and parents should expect results soon.
Many families there said their kids started showing symptoms of illness in the last few days, but they hadn’t been able to find tests at medical centers or hospitals and didn’t want to risk sending their kids to school without one.
Maira Montes dropped her daughter Ximena Montes, 9, off at San Jose’s Trace Elementary School on Tuesday morning just hours before a school nurse called her to pick up Ximena and take her to get a COVID-19 test.
“I started having symptoms. My legs were shaking and I started feeling dizzy,” Ximena said as she waited in line. She said her substitute teacher sent her to the school nurses’ office after suspecting she was showing symptoms of the virus, and nearly half of her 4th grade class and her teacher were missing from class this morning.
Krista Golobic and Catia Avila kept their elementary-aged daughters home from school and headed straight to the district office this morning to get tested after they started showing symptoms over the winter break.
Avila said her daughter Emily Angel has had a cough for several days, but they couldn’t get a test anywhere.
“I called the school this morning and said, ‘You know what, she has a cold, what do I do?’ I don’t want to send her to school like that, but I couldn’t get an appointment anywhere. So they sent me here,” Avila said.
Golobic kept her two daughters, Kali and Marley Mullinaux, students at Horace Mann Elementary, home on Tuesday morning because they’ve been sick for four days. She said state and local leaders are doing the right thing by keeping schools open right now, and she’s glad the district made it convenient to get tested.
“I mean they missed so much school already,” Golobic said. “It’s a scary thing, but school is important.”
As the omicron variant ravages the state, parents’ reservations about sending their kids back into the classroom without a negative test parallels concerns from school leaders about an increase in cases among younger children as they return to school in the coming days.
School officials are already seeing a surge in student and teacher absences at nearly every district in the region. They’re scrambling for resources to get students and staff tested, and they’re asking parents to keep their kids home if they show any symptoms of the virus.
Oakland Unified reported 269 teachers were absent, and Berkeley Unified said 61 teachers and 44 other staff were out Tuesday. School officials said they were able to cover absences with substitutes and other staff to keep classes going.
At the San Jose Unified district office Tuesday, parents asking for at-home tests were turned away — the district ran out of them before the first day of school. Maddox said the district is expecting more to arrive in the coming days. During the school week, families can go to the district office, operations warehouse or Liberty Alternative School to get their kids a COVID-19 PCR test with an appointment.
Gov. Gavin Newsom last month said his administration would help thwart winter outbreaks and keep schools open by “making at-home testing kits available to every K-12 public school student as they head back to the classroom from winter break,” which would total more than 6 million.
Although the governor’s office said in a statement Tuesday that it has sent about 8.2 million tests to schools, many “have been delayed by the unprecedented storms the country has seen over the last two weeks.”
By next week when the state’s largest districts, including Los Angeles, Riverside and Fresno, return from winter break, the governor’s office said that “we will have delivered nearly 10 million antigen at-home tests to schools.”