A week and half into what's proven to be a crisis moment for the Sequoia Union High School District, board members gathered for a special meeting Thursday to discuss ways to get help from the government and community members amid a record number of COVID-19 cases in the district — over 1,000 in the last two weeks. Trustees also passed a resolution asking state and federal officials for aid.
As of Jan. 14, there were 340 COVID-19 cases in the district for the week (27 staff members and 313 students are infected) as the omicron variant surged locally, according to district data. There have been 1,283 cases so far this school year, with 1,050 of them occurring since students returned from winter break on Jan. 4. The district noted during the meeting that not all cases reported were on campuses during the infectious period and not all case transmission occurred at school.
"In August when we opened school we were all excited," said Superintendent Darnise Williams during the meeting. "At that time we made a commitment — to our community, to our families, to teachers — that we would remain open for in-person instruction; here we find ourselves in mid-January with a surge none of us could have anticipated. … The best place for our students is in school. You have our total commitment that we are going to do everything within our power to make sure our students are able to attend school."
The board's resolution asks the state and federal government to deploy emergency public health care workers and staff to the district so it can have adequate COVID-19 testing, vaccination clinics and medical services. Trustees also asked staff to add two requests to the plea:
• Extend the length of time substitute teachers can be assigned to cover a special education class (120 days, per a recent order by Gov. Gavin Newsom)
• Allow retired staff to return full time for the duration of the school year; not just until March 31
Current state laws don't allow districts to close a school and offer distance learning because of staffing shortages, noted Bonnie Hansen, assistant superintendent of educational services.
A district must plan to offer independent study and demonstrate that they have exhausted all of staffing options by consulting their county office of education and the state, the California Department of Education website.
"The state has yet to accept the criteria any district has been given to be eligible for the J-13A (the emergency closure waiver)," Hansen said during the meeting.
Even with 12 to 15% of staff out of school in a Sacramento school district last week, the state said it was not a high enough number of absences to warrant a closure.
Board President Alan Sarver commended staff for teaching under such extraordinary circumstances.
"We went into a winter break that we had made a point of recognizing how overstressed every member of our staff was and how critical it was for our staff, our students, our families, to have downtime, quiet time, recovery time, family time to get ready for our second semester, and to get ourselves a little bit back to a healthy frame of mind and body," he said at the meeting. "And that winter break was consumed for most of the professionals in this room by planning for the onset of this tremendous new spike that's taken us to a level that we haven't seen before."
Jacqui Cebrian, a Menlo-Atherton High School parent and co-president of the school's PTA, said so far school has felt safe for her daughter, a senior. Cebrian, who teaches reading at Oak Knoll School in Menlo Park, canceled plans for a picnic at Mt. Diablo to celebrate her mother’s birthday this weekend because she and her daughter are "swimming in a sea of COVID everyday" at school and don't want to potentially expose her mother.
Cebrian's daughter has felt safe at school ("she's not nervous, so I'm not nervous," Cebrian said) and doesn't see distance learning as a good option.
"Other than not having absences, it hasn't really felt any different (since the surge began) except for we're all talking about it (COVID) a lot," she said.
Cebrian noted that it feels a little bit like it did in March of 2020, but she feels safer because people are vaccinated against the virus and wearing masks and not hanging out with people who are unvaccinated. She's adjusted her families' activities to limit her COVID-19 exposure to help keep schools open.
"The idea that we just have this last giant hurdle, and maybe this will be smoother soon, this helps," she said. "Sometimes you have to give people hope."
A Menlo-Atherton High School parent volunteer has created a flier that will run in high school newspapers asking fellow parents to help fill in for absent teachers, said Todd Beal, who recently became assistant superintendent of human resources. The district has posted job openings on EdJoin and is considering posting openings on Facebook or Twitter, he noted.
"Never have educators been faced with a crisis of this magnitude during our lifetime," Williams said in a statement provided to The Almanac on Friday. "As our district continues being stretched, we are now at a point where we truly need all hands on deck, and are asking parents, where they can, to volunteer and partner with us through this crisis."
Beal said the district has about 100 substitute teachers, down from 110 at the start of the school year. He noted teachers who retired from the district are not wanting to sub as much right now to protect themselves from catching the virus.
The district is also asking teachers to prepare emergency lesson plans for subs in case they end up testing positive.
District administrators with teaching credentials began filling in for teachers earlier this week.
On Tuesday, Newsom signed an executive order loosening state regulations around the hiring of substitute teachers as districts grapple with staffing shortages, with teachers isolating at home with the virus.
Through March 31, the order allows for temporary certificates to be issued to substitute teachers who don't have credentials. The order also extends the length of time substitute teachers can be assigned to a class to 120 days and allows more flexibility for retired teachers to work as substitutes.
Districts must submit a "written finding" that the more flexible rules will allow them to maintain in-person instruction despite staffing shortages.
There is also increased student and staff testing being offered 12 hours a day Monday, Jan. 17, to Sunday, Jan. 23, with enough staff to do up to 1,400 tests per day.
In the next three weeks, the district will be able to offer staff post-isolation video consultations to determine whether they can safely return to campus. Staff members who need to isolate will be able to pick up a rapid test kit, go home, and after the fifth day of their quarantine, schedule an appointment for a telemedicine consultation as they take the rapid test.
The district will also offer telemedicine services for staff and students who test positive.
Although contact tracing is currently suspended because of the sheer number of cases, when it is resumed the district plans to notify everyone in a classroom rather than just students, teachers and aides sitting within 6 feet of the person who tests positive, said Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Elizabeth Chacón.
Watch the meeting here.