On trend with climbing case numbers, Humboldt’s schools are facing the biggest boom in COVID-positive staff and students since the onset of the pandemic.
After closing and reopening one of its schools last week due to staffing shortages, McKinleyville Union School District closed McKinleyville Middle School for three days this week and Morris Elementary for the entire week. The Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District board voted to close the district’s seven schools from Jan. 12 through Jan. 18, citing “the number of CoVid cases in our communities.” On Tuesday, Loleta Elementary School announced on Facebook that grades 7 and 8 will be distance learning until next week. Other classrooms might be closed too, but not all schools publicly announce their closures.
The situation is weighing heavily on some parents. One mom told the Outpost that if she and her son get COVID, isolating will be extremely financially straining. “If I get sick my work won’t pay for Covid pay. Many people are in that boat,” she said. Her son goes to Morris Elementary. She’s worried about sending him back once the school opens up again, but doesn’t see any alternatives because there is no help for parents in this situation.
Meanwhile, schools able to remain open are navigating higher case counts than ever. The Northern Humboldt Union High School District – a rare district that releases student and staff case counts – recorded more than half (70) the district’s total positive cases (126) last week. There will be more positives to record at the end of this week, and, on top of those, some families are keeping students home to avoid getting sick. Attendance is way down.
“It’s just all COVID all day – from early in the morning, through the day, into the evening,” said NoHum Superintendent Roger Macdonald. Administrators are busy communicating changes and developments to staff, who are busy picking up extra COVID-related duties, like contact tracing, calling families and logging cases into databases for the county.
“The impact on our schools is that we’re thin everywhere – we’re not able to fully take care of everyone like we want to.” NoHum is facing its own staffing shortages, but Macdonald doesn’t think closing a school will be necessary. The district hires substitutes every day, and even if last-minute help isn’t needed in a classroom, there’s always COVID-related work elsewhere, Macdonald said.
“We’ve been fortunate so far that we have not gotten to a place where we need to consider closing.” Macdonald guessed that the surge is hitting high schools the hardest because teens are more social than younger kids.
Following the winter break, HCOE and Humboldt’s school districts anticipated there might be an uptick in cases. According to a press release, HCOE was able to provide enough rapid tests for every K-12 student in Humboldt, and districts began distributing the tests at the end of December. But HCOE doesn’t have the results from all those tests; parents were instructed to report positives to Public Health and their child’s school.
And so it is hard to say just how many students and staff are out sick. That said, a parent-run Facebook group aiming to track in-school COVID cases is exploding with posts describing half-empty classrooms and student case counts in the hundreds. Some parents post to the group when notified of a positive case by their child’s school, and others post their own observations or information provided by their kids. The thousand-member group was created at the beginning of this school year by parents concerned that student case numbers are not made public, even though the data exists. (It should be noted that there is no way to verify many of the posts.)
“I dropped my son off at AHS this morning at around 8:20. Usually there is a long line of cars – parents waiting to get to the curb and teens finding a spot, but this morning hardly any cars in the parking lot or the line. It was noticeable,” one parent wrote last week.
“Washington elementary. My kid told me 12 were absent in his class on Friday. His best friend said 5 in his class. Both tested positive this weekend. They were testing kids all day long and my K-aged child told me they pulled kids from class during the school day, as I assume they were testing kids all day. It’s all over the place there. They are doing a good job of calling and such. I don’t know what else they could do?” another said this week.
Some parents believe all schools should close and wait out the surge, but moving back to distance learning isn’t an option under California law.
“Philosophically, we don’t want to [close] because we all know at school that our students need to be at school,” Macdonald said. “We believe that it’s probably safer to be at school – masked, distanced, amongst a population that’s tested regularly – that’s probably safer than just being out in the community anyway.”
And so – with a successful few months of very little in-school transmission in the rearview – school districts, the county office of education and public health are prioritizing keeping schools open. Those that are shifting to independent study during the surge are doing it due to staffing shortages, not to prevent in-school transmission.
“Staffing shortages are a very real and concerning reality. In school districts across the state, it’s a case of ‘all hands on deck’ with administrators and itinerant teachers being pulled-in to teach classes when substitute teachers are not available,” said Superintendent of Schools Michael Davies-Hughes in last week’s press release. “I continue to be very proud of our educational community in doing ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure that students can safely attend school for in-person instruction.”
To help with the staffing shortages, HCOE is hosting an informational meeting for people interested in becoming substitute teachers on Friday via Zoom.
In the midst of the surge, HCOE, in partnership with Humboldt County Public Health, updated its COVID response guidelines for schools last week. The biggest change is that quarantine – in the case of a positive – has been reduced from ten days to five, in most circumstances. This change mirrors updated isolation guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many schools are offering on-campus testing to students and staff. Johnny Kell, a nurse at NoHum, said that scratchy throat, mild headaches and mild nasal symptoms are the most common COVID-related symptoms he’s seen recently. NoHum is offering on-site rapid and PCR tests, and is providing and encouraging higher-performing masks, like 3-ply surgical masks or KN95 respirators, as opposed to cloth masks.
“I am proud of how many students are testing for peace of mind and how many students and parents are communicating well about feeling ill and staying home,” Kell said. “We are doing all that we can to keep students and staff safe and I appreciate the collaboration and everyone doing their part.”
Ishan Vernallis, a local parent who created the Facebook group tracking in-school COVID cases, said that, to this point, he feels COVID prevention measures in schools have worked well.
“That was actually really reassuring – just to see that the masking and the social distancing and everything that the schools were doing for Delta worked really well,” Vernallis said. But he wonders if mitigating in-school transmission is as possible with the omicron variant, which is far more contagious. “It seems to me that it’s spreading in the schools at this point – mostly because of how many staff are going out,” he said. “But I can’t say that for sure.”
At Vernallis’ kids’ school, there have only been a few exposures. “The Facebook page is at least allowing me to see what’s going on in the surrounding areas and make informed decisions,” he said. “If we start seeing the cases rising in the school, we’re gonna pull our kids out.”
When Vernallis started the Facebook group, he and many other parents were concerned about sending their kids to school because children under 12 weren’t yet vaccine-eligible (now children older than 5 can be vaccinated). This surge is different.
“People are definitely expressing a lot of concern and worry, but I don’t feel it’s the same – where people are afraid their kids are going to end up in the hospital – it’s not that drastic. It doesn’t seem like it’s as much of a life-and-death situation as it felt during delta.” Vernallis added that although omicron looks to be less severe than delta, his awareness and concern that the long term effects of COVID are still being discovered continues.
School leaders are asking the community to help our strained schools by being patient and responsible.
“[We] ask our community to be patient with us. We’re doing the very best we can to communicate with them. We’re doing our very best that we can to provide a safe place for our students to learn. And we appreciate our community’s support,” Macdonald said.
“Particularly we appreciate our community that’s doing their part too – masking and making healthy choices, safe choices.”