San Jose schools report COVID cases as students return
Santa Teresa High School student Justin Jarvis stands on campus in April 2021. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Weeks after students returned to campus, San Jose’s three largest districts have reported nearly 120 COVID-19 cases.

    Officials say the low count is a sign that masks are working to fend off the virus.

    At the San Jose Unified School District, the largest district in the region with more than 30,000 students and 4,000 employees, schools reported about five new cases a day this past week, officials said. The district reopened Aug. 18 and recorded 21 COVID-19 cases across 15 schools in the first five days back on campus.

    East Side Union High School District, which has about 22,000 students, has reported 47 cases among students and five among staff since Aug. 10 when students returned to class.

    Neighboring Alum Rock Union School District has recorded 21 cases since reopening on Aug. 18. The district has roughly 10,000 students.

    San José Spotlight requested COVID-19 infection numbers for all school districts in San Jose from county health officials who have yet to provide the data. School administrators reported the figures for the three school districts.

    Most of the county’s 263,000 students returned to school—some for the first time—earlier this month after more than a year of distance learning. Questions about safety linger, especially for children under 12 who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. In Santa Clara County, the case rate per 100,000 people among children under 12 increased this month and now sits at 18.9 — slightly higher than the county’s overall rate of 17.

    But officials are confident safety measures such as masks are fending off the virus—and say closing schools due to new infections is unlikely.

    “I think you’d really have to start seeing widespread transmission inside the classroom for that to even be considered,” SJUSD spokesperson Jennifer Maddox told San José Spotlight. “And right now we just don’t have any data to suggest that is happening.”

    Limited local infections

    At San Jose Unified School District, the case rate is slightly lower than the county’s number of daily cases per capita, according to a San José Spotlight’s analysis. Almost all other districts are recording fewer cases among students and school employees, according to available data.

    That’s a stark contrast to other parts of the country, where thousands of positive COVID-19 infections have been reported on school campuses. In Southern California, a Los Angeles school district sent 6,500 students into quarantine and isolation last week.

    “I think this has a lot to do with our level of vaccination as a county,” Glenn Vander Zee, superintendent of East Side Union High School District, told San José Spotlight. “Our levels are much higher than other places.”

    In San Jose, 90.8% of all eligible residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to county data. The city has more than 80,000 children under 12 who are not eligible for vaccination, the county estimates.

    Back on campus

    East Side Union High School District, which started earlier than SJUSD and Alum Rock, is seeing a higher number of cases. Andrew Hill High School has the most, with 11 positive infections. Some schools in the district, such as James Lick and Phoenix high schools, are reporting zero cases, according to the district’s dashboard.

    Vander Zee said district schools ask students and faculty to keep their masks on outdoors—something not required by the state or county.

    “They’re being very vigilant with each other and keeping them on,” he said.

    Following guidance from the state and county, San Jose schools have mandated mask wearing, required vaccination proof or weekly testing from employees and improved ventilation and air filtration in the classroom.

    Still, parents worry the safety protocols are not enough.

    Concern over outbreaks

    Sandra Sanchez, whose three children attend schools in Oak Grove School District, scrambled to get her entire family tested last week after two of her kids were exposed to someone with an infection at school.

    “I think we should be getting them tested weekly if they’re going to be attending school,” she said of children too young to be vaccinated. “I think they should be mandating social distance.”

    According to posts on Nextdoor, COVID infections have hit six elementary schools and one middle school in the Oak Grove School District. The district didn’t respond to multiple inquiries about its COVID-19 cases.

    Schools must notify parents if their children come in close contact—within six feet for 15 minutes or more—of a person who tests positive for COVID-19, per state law. Those who test positive must quarantine at home for 10 days.

    Last week, Santa Clara County issued a statement reaffirming its support for students to return to the classroom full-time.

    “We know that when rates of COVID are high in our communities, cases will appear at schools, just as they do in other settings,” the statement reads. “However, with effective protocols in place… the data shows that these multiple layers of defense can stop the spread of COVID in school settings.”

    At SJUSD, vaccination status, masking and proper ventilation all play a role in preventing infections, said Patrick Bernhardt, president of the San Jose Teachers Association.

    “There’s definitely going to be some anxiety,” Bernhardt said. “But 95% of teachers in San Jose Unified are vaccinated. That is their strongest protection and I think that gives everybody a lot of confidence.”

    Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Oak Grove School District includes high schools.

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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