South Bay schools are facing increased challenges with student and staff absences as the COVID-19 omicron variant spreads. Despite that, it’s unlikely schools will close like they did at the start of the pandemic.
State law requires schools to continue with in-person learning or face funding cuts. Maria Clayton, spokesperson for the California Department of Education, told San Josè Spotlight in order to get state funding, public schools must provide in-person instruction. The state’s provision for distance learning expired on June 30, 2021.
Last year, lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 130, allowing students to complete their academics outside the classroom through independent study.
But school districts can’t just shift students to independent study due to staffing shortages, said Mary Ann Dewan, Santa Clara County superintendent of schools. Under state public health guidance, as well as the education code, schools are expected to provide in-person learning, she said.
“The goal is to be the least disruptive to children,” Dewan told San Josè Spotlight, “so children can continue to come to school.”
She said studies showed that during distance learning, students suffered negative impacts such as social isolation, lack of learning and engagement and a negative impact on their social relationships.
Some parents and students of Pioneer High School in the San Jose Unified School District said they prefer in-person learning.
Parent Genet Afewerki said having her three children learning from home was difficult and fraught with interruptions. She said they benefit emotionally from being able to socialize with friends.
“Last year was the worst,” Afewerki said. “This year is much better in person.”
Student Roma Smith agreed, saying she finds herself much more engaged in the classroom setting.
COVID in local schools
San Jose Unified School District is averaging more than 200 positive COVID-19 cases per day, according to spokesperson Jennifer Maddox. From Jan. 14 to Jan. 24, the district has had 1,746 reported infections from students and staff—roughly 6% of the total population of students and staff of approximately 30,500.
“Our schools remain open and would only close due to COVID if ordered to do so by the public health department,” the district said in a statement.
Although the school district requires masking, a high number of positive cases is “significantly straining” its ability to cover employee absences, especially for teachers and instructional assistants, the district said in a statement.
To address staffing absences, school districts must place substitutes, principals and other qualified staff in classrooms. In Palo Alto, some parents are volunteering to help fill absences.
SJUSD is offering COVID PCR testing at schools and is distributing home antigen test kits. A negative result is required for students and employees to return after five days of isolation, along with no fever for 24 hours and improving or no symptoms.
As of Jan. 6, the school administered more than 2,000 PCR tests to students and employees and sent home almost 17,000 antigen test kits.
East Side Union High School District Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee said during distance learning the district saw a learning loss and an impact on mental health. He said the district will continue to follow guidelines and do whatever it can to keep students safe, including masking, encouraging vaccinations, ventilation, close contract tracing and quarantine.
“We’re seeing increased rates with the omicron variant, but are continuing to take measures as a community to stay safe,” he said. “We take this all very seriously.”
East Side Union High School District reported 27 of its 2,167 staff and 397 of 22,042 students tested positive for COVID-19 from Jan. 14 to Jan. 24, lower than previous weeks.
Hilaria Bauer, Alum Rock Union School District superintendent, said the school district has not considered returning to distance learning.
“Our students need the ability to learn in the school environment,” Bauer told San José Spotlight. “In-person learning is the best way to learn.”
Students are also safer in school with responsible individuals monitoring them, she added.
“Some students are left at home to care for younger siblings,” Bauer said, “or left alone altogether if parents have to work. Many students end up in the community at the store or in the streets without adult supervision and become infected.”
About 25% of Alum Rock Union School District students are currently absent, compared to its usual 96 to 97% attendance, she said.
To fight COVID-19, the school district has increased the amounts of KN95 masks for all staff, as well as access to rapid testing and pool testing at all sites, Bauer said.
“We are following all the guidelines to be able to confront the surge in infection,” Bauer said, “as well as to keep our schools open.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].