California schools are facing unprecedented stress amid Omicron

In Los Angeles, schools saw a massive drop in daily attendance of 130,000 students as students returned this week from winter break, the latest pandemic hit in education.

In San Diego, a severe staff shortage prompted school leaders to warn families about the possibility of “COVID Impact Days,” which resemble hot or snowy days. And in Culver City, borough leaders announced they would close all schools next week to give students and staff time to “recover and recover.”

Educators across California are working in triage mode to keep campuses open and the state’s 6 million children in class as Omicron-fueled coronavirus cases surge. With a few notable exceptions, they succeed. But staff and students are strained in new and stressful ways as another intense chapter of the pandemic unfolds in schools.

Amid outbreaks and skyrocketing infections, districts have closed classrooms; Some teachers are trying to figure out how to adjust their lesson plans when fewer than a third of their students are at their desks. and administrators and other district employees strive to fill in for absent employees. Just two weeks into the spring semester, many are exhausted.

“I’m frustrated for my staff, I see the wear and tear on them,” said Craig Spratt, principal at Cerritos Elementary School in Cerritos. “They put on the bravest faces. They provide the best routine she can have for her kids and I just do whatever I can to take the extra stress off of them so they can focus on their kids. It’s a very stressful time right now.”

Some districts have delayed the start of the spring semester or closed schools amid the surge, including Montebello Unified and the small Mammoth Unified School District, which closed schools for three weeks.


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The increase in school cases has been rapid and dramatic. In Los Angeles County before Omicron, the rate of positive cases among students and staff was “extraordinarily low” at about 0.2%, Barbara Ferrer, the county’s director of public health, said in a news conference this week. Last week it rose to almost 15% – or more than 80,000 positive tests.

Health officials are investigating about two dozen school outbreaks – most of which were linked to school sports during the winter break. And Ferrer warned that the surge would likely lead to more.

At LA Unified, average attendance through Thursday was about 67%, district officials said. All schools remained open for face-to-face classes, and administrators left their offices to cover teacher absences if replacements could not be found.

San Pedro High School principal Steve Gebhart said he felt the emptiness of his campus as he walked through the schoolyard and near the flagpole during lunch this week.

About 800 students out of 2,650 residents were absent earlier in the week, and about 500 students were absent on Friday, he said.

Students have been hesitant to return given the overwhelming news of the coronavirus surge, but came back when they saw the school “was safe and all the measures in place were working,” Gebhart said.

The school also had multiple teachers each day, but they managed to cover them with certified staff without having to merge classes, he said. Gebhart replaced Wednesday in a health course.

In San Diego, officials sent a message to families informing them that due to the severe challenges schools are facing, children were likely to experience disruption over the next few weeks — whether it be surrogacy, instruction in a classroom setting, or ” Classes”. Time replaced with self-paced activities.”

“These are temporary measures required by the pandemic, and applying these strategies will allow San Diego Unified to keep classrooms open,” officials said.

As a last resort, district officials said they would work with local authorities to declare a “COVID Impact Day” and close the campus for a day.

In Burbank, where students returned to campus Jan. 3, attendance fell to about 75% and at least eight classrooms at five different elementary schools had to close, Supt. Matt Hügel said. The district has also relied on office staff to fill due to staffing shortages.

Districts need more flexibility and support from the state, Hill said. He wants the state to start distributing coronavirus tests directly to families, rather than putting additional burdens on schools to distribute them. He also wants the state to provide district testing clinics rather than having hundreds of districts tasked with setting up their own.

In Culver City, county officials announced on Friday that all schools will be closed next week due to the surge in coronavirus cases. The K-12 public school system, which was the first in the country to mandate vaccination for students with coronavirus, had recorded 587 cases from students as of August 2020. Of these, 463 were reported in the last two weeks. The district has 7,100 students and 900 employees.

“Things have accelerated too quickly,” Supt said Quoc Tran. By taking a few days off, “everyone has a chance to distance themselves, recover, and come back on Monday.”

Students will be sent home with a coronavirus test kit and will need to present a negative test to return on January 24.

The surge has also sparked industrial action, with teachers in San Francisco, Oakland and West Contra Costa staging actions to demand additional safety measures.

In Oakland, students also began circulating a petition reiterating teachers’ safety demands. To date, it has been signed by more than 1,200 students. Ayleen Serrano, a petition organizer and a student at MetWest High School, said she felt the strain of the surge. All of her classes are only half full, she said. You only have 7 students instead of 20.

“Even if two or three children are missing, it makes a big dent,” she said. “We can’t learn anything either, because many children fall behind.”

Across the state, staff shortages have prompted teachers and school officials to take extraordinary measures.

In Santa Ana, kindergarten teacher Elaine Vique developed COVID-19 symptoms just days after the start of the school year. After testing positive, Vique, who has taught at Lincoln Elementary for 27 years, was forced to stay home as her peers were spread thin to cover classes.

So on Sunday night, after recovering from moderate symptoms and while preparing plans for a replacement, she instead asked her assistant principal if she could homeschool her 23 kindergarten children.

“I just thought there’s no replacement, they’re already behind, I have to do what I have to do to help,” Vique said.

On Monday morning, she appeared on a big screen in front of her students, who looked up in silent astonishment. She was able to continue her classes in phonetics and mathematics while another staff member personally supervised her class.

“I’ve really, really tried to keep things normal for her, as normal as possible,” Vique said. “They really need that.”

Santa Ana District officials said they were hopeful the surge in their community was easing. After students returned to campus Jan. 3, attendance dropped to about 85% but has recovered, spokesman Fermin Leal said.

At Don Austin’s Palo Alto office, there’s a mantra he scrawled on his whiteboard months ago: “It’s going to be harder to reopen than it is to close.”

It reminded the Palo Alto Unified School District superintendent that he and his staff should avoid closing the campus at all costs.

The district, which has about 10,500 students, returned to campus on January 4. While some teachers were ill, Austin said, shortages of bus drivers, catering workers and school nurses were also a concern.

“It was absolutely scary,” Austin said. “We could hobble through with the skin of our teeth.”

On Saturday, he and his team considered how to cope with the strain on their employees. Her solution? Recruiting parents who have been kept away from schools due to coronavirus safety protocols. The district launched 1 Palo Alto on a Sunday night, sending out emails and text messages to parents.

As of Wednesday, the district had enrolled 765 parents to volunteer at school coronavirus clinics, become cafeteria cashiers, wipe desks at the end of the school day and help with clerical chores.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday the state plans to send more coronavirus tests and high-quality masks to campuses while facilitating hiring of substitute teachers to help with staff shortages. Schools have also been given funds to extend the school year if needed to accommodate class days, he said.

When asked if schools should have a backup plan for online learning, Newsom said kids should be in school.

“We want them to be safe in in-person classes,” he said. “And the overwhelming majority of schools are working at it and let me just acknowledge it’s not easy.”

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