In Los Angeles, schools saw a massive drop in daily attendance of 130,000 students when students returned from winter vacation this week, the latest pandemic to hit education.
In San Diego, severe staffing shortages have led school leaders to warn families about the possibility of “COVID impact days” similar to hot or snowy days. And in Culver City, district leaders announced they would close all schools next week to give students and staff time to “recover and recuperate.”
Educators across California are in triage mode to keep campuses open and the state’s 6 million children in the classroom as Omicron-powered coronavirus cases rise. With a few notable exceptions, they succeed. But staff and students are being stretched in new and stressful ways as another intense chapter of the pandemic unfolds in schools.
Amid outbreaks and growing infections, districts closed classrooms; some teachers are trying to figure out how to adjust their lesson plans with less than a third of the students at their desks; and administrators and other district employees scramble to replace absent staff. Only two weeks into the spring semester, many are exhausted.
“I’m frustrated for my staff, I see their wear and tear,” said Craig Spratt, principal of Cerritos Elementary School in Cerritos. “They put on the bravest faces. They provide the best routine they can for their kids and I do everything I can to relieve them of the extra burdens so they can focus on their kids. It’s a very stressful times right now.
A few districts delayed the start of the spring semester or closed schools amid the surge, including Montebello Unified and the small Mammoth Unified School District, where schools were closed for three weeks.
The Perils of Parenthood During a Pandemic
What’s going on with school? What do children need? Get 8 to 3, a newsletter dedicated to the issues that keep California families up at night.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
The spike 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 around 0.2%, County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a briefing. press this week. Last week it soared to almost 15% – or more than 80,000 positive tests.
Health officials are investigating about two dozen school outbreaks – which were largely linked to school sports during the winter break. And Ferrer warned the push would likely lead to more.
At LA Unified, average attendance through Thursday was about 67%, district officials said. All schools remained open for in-person learning, and administrators left their offices to help cover teacher absences when replacements could not be found.
San Pedro High School principal Steve Gebhart said he felt the emptiness of his campus as he walked in the school quad and near the flagpole during lunch this week.
About 800 students out of a population of 2,650 were absent at the start of the week, and about 500 students were absent on Friday, he said.
Students were hesitant to return amid the damning news of the coronavirus outbreak, but started coming 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 was able to cover them with certified staff without having to combine classes, he said. Gebhart replaced in a health class on Wednesday.
In San Diego, officials have sent a message to families letting them know that due to the severe challenges facing schools, children will likely experience disruption over the next few weeks – whether it’s a replacement, classroom work in a study room-type environment, or “time replaced with self-paced activities.
“These are temporary measures required by the pandemic, and using 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 officials to declare a “COVID Impact Day,” closing campuses for a day.
In Burbank, where students returned to campus on Jan. 3, attendance fell to about 75% and at least eight classrooms in five different elementary schools had to close, the superintendent said. Matt Hill. The district has also relied on clerical staff to fill the staffing gap.
Districts need more flexibility and support from the state, Hill said. He wants to see the state start distributing coronavirus tests directly to families, rather than placing an additional charge on schools to distribute them. He also wants the state to provide testing clinics to districts so that hundreds of districts aren’t tasked with setting up their own.
In Culver City, district officials announced Friday that due to surging coronavirus cases, it will close all schools next week. The K-12 public school system, the first in the nation to issue a mandate to vaccinate students against the coronavirus, had recorded 587 student cases since August 2020. Of those, 463 were reported in the past two weeks. . The district has 7,100 students and 900 employees.
“Things sped up too quickly,” the superintendent said. Quoc Tran said. By taking a few days off, “everyone will have the chance to be away from each other, recover and recuperate and come back on Monday.”
Students will be sent home with a coronavirus test kit and they will have to show a negative test to return on January 24.
The outbreak has also led to labor disputes, 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 echoing teacher safety demands. To date, it has been signed by over 1,200 students. Ayleen Serrano, petition organizer and sophomore at MetWest High School, said she felt the pressure of the push. All of her classes are only half full, she says. We only have 7 students instead of 20.
“Even when two or three children are missing, it makes a big dent,” she said. “We can’t learn anything either because a lot of kids will fall behind.”
Across the state, staffing shortages have led teachers and school officials to take extraordinary measures.
In Santa Ana, kindergarten teacher Elaine Vique began experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 just days into the school year. After testing positive, Vique, who taught at Lincoln Elementary for 27 years, was forced to stay home while her colleagues were scattered to cover class.
So on Sunday evening, after recovering from mild symptoms and while making plans for a replacement, she instead asked her deputy headmaster if she could teach her 23 kindergarten children from home.
“I was just thinking, there are no substitutes, they are already behind, I have to do what I have to do to help,” Vique said.
On Monday morning, she appeared on a large screen in front of her students, who looked up in silent amazement. She was able to continue her phonics and math lessons while another staff member supervised her class in person.
“I really, really tried to keep things normal for them, as normal as possible,” Vique said. “They really need this.”
Santa Ana District officials said they hope the increase in their community begins to subside. After students returned to campus on Jan. 3, attendance dropped to about 85% but began to rebound, spokesperson Fermin Leal said.
In Don Austin’s office in Palo Alto, there’s a mantra he scribbled on his whiteboard months ago: “It will be harder to reopen than to close.”
This reminded the superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District that he and his staff should avoid closing campuses at all costs.
The district of about 10,500 students returned to campus on January 4. While some teachers were sick, Austin said, a shortage of bus drivers, food service workers and school nurses also raised concerns.
“It was downright scary,” Austin said. “We were able to get away with it by the skin of our teeth.”
On Saturday, he and his team were considering how to handle the pressure on their staff. Their solution? Enlisting parents, who have been kept away from schools due to coronavirus safety protocols. The district kicked off 1 Palo Alto on a Sunday night and emailed and texted parents.
As of Wednesday, the district had signed up 765 parents to volunteer at school coronavirus clinics, becoming cashiers in the cafeteria, wiping down desks at the end of the school day and helping with clerical duties.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday that the state is moving to send more coronavirus tests and high-quality masks to campuses while making it easier to hire substitute teachers to address staffing shortages. Schools have also received funding to extend the school year if necessary to meet teaching days, he said.
When asked if schools should have a back-up plan for online learning, Newsom said kids should be in school.
“We want them to be safe teaching in person,” he said. “And the overwhelming majority of schools are working through this and let me acknowledge that it’s not easy.”