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January 24, 2022

Local schools battered by winter Covid-19 surge

Up until mid-December, the Bonny Doon Union Elementary School District had seen just a single case of Covid-19 in its student body this school year. And before that, it had only recorded one other case during the entire pandemic. Now, the school system currently has three active cases.

“This is our first real wave we’re experiencing here in Bonny Doon,” said superintendent Mike Heffner, who is also the school principal. “It’s a little unsettling.”

Local schools have been adjusting to new California Department of Public Health guidelines around isolation periods and quarantine requirements, as Santa Cruz County clocks a significant rise in Covid-19 cases.

As of Jan. 10, the county was reporting more than 3,300 active cases of the novel coronavirus—by far the largest number of active cases since the start of the pandemic.

Heffner says it’s not just making sure the sick students are being properly cared for that’s tough, but also committing resources to manage the administrative side of things, too.

“This is the beginning of our real need to send out exposure notices,” he said, adding they’ve now upped surveillance to twice a week and are distributing KN95 masks to students.

Those students have been quite understanding, if inquisitive.

“Kids are starting to ask questions that we haven’t received before,” Heffner said, describing moments during recess this year where queries came up, such as, “‘How come we can’t play with these students, or this class, or that class?’”

That’s because the district has modified activities for some classes with uninfected students, just to be safe.

Down the hill and along the coast, is another small school system—Pacific Elementary School District.

It currently has one student who’s tested positive for Covid-19 and three additional who are “very strongly suspected positive,” according to Superintendent/Principal Eric Gross.

He figures that’s a positivity rate of about 3%, depending on how you crunch the numbers.

That district also has one staff member who tested positive, although none of the teachers have yet, he added.

“Our suspicion is that it is all Omicron,” he said, adding school officials share updates with parents in a weekly memo. “We do offer a Home Studies program for distance learners.”

It plans to keep offering this option as long as there’s a demand for it.

In addition, the district runs a twice-weekly testing program, has portable air filters and MERV 13 filters in the air exchange system and requires masks indoors. It also canceled some activities and moved others outdoors. Plus, 100% of its staff have been vaccinated, and all volunteers must show proof of vaccination.

“Pacific Elementary was omitted from federal Covid relief funds, so all of our efforts have hit our budget very hard,” Gross said, noting it’s been “a ton of extra work for office staff trying to conduct accurate contact tracing and notification.”

On Jan. 7, the superintendent of the much-larger San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District sent a letter to parents reporting case numbers dwarfing those of the smaller districts.

“Both the week prior to school returning and this last week, SLVUSD has seen over 100 positive cases, but please note that the majority of these positive cases are families who reported after testing with the home test kit that was provided prior to the return to school,” Superintendent Chris Schiermeyer wrote. “With that said, we do have school exposures occurring.”

In an interview with the Press Banner, Schiermeyer said the district’s positivity rate is around 4% when data is limited to positive tests from school site testing.

“We know there are additional individuals who tested positive but did not expose any students or staff at school,” he said, noting County Office of Education data show a region-wide positivity rate of about 7%. “Our staff is committed to providing a safe educational environment for students and staff as we navigate this pandemic.”

It’s unclear whether the SLVUSD infections are due to the Omicron variant or not, he added.

“We have provided families in-person and independent study options to support them through their academics,” he said. “We also have mental health counselors, mental health associates, health technicians, two district nurses and our administrative team available to support families.”

SLVUSD provided 1,500 home test kits to families on the Sunday prior to classes starting again, and it performs weekly testing for both staff and students on-site through a partnership with Inspire Diagnostics.

In a Jan. 7 letter to her school community, the superintendent of the Scotts Valley Unified School District, Tanya Krause, said the reemergence of the coronavirus had presented “significant challenges” for the district.

“We, too, are frustrated with the situation,” she said. “Like many others, we are woefully short-staffed and in addition, some of our staff members also have contracted Covid and we don’t have adequate coverage for those positions.”

SVUSD’s Covid-19 dashboard shows 62 total cases among students (including 43 at Scotts Valley High School), as of Jan. 8—which may not account for all infections picked up over the holidays.

The dashboard doesn’t reflect cases not identified by its partnership with Inspire Diagnostics or reported to the district by families who got an outside test.

Nevertheless, that’s still more than half of all student infections tracked since August.

Plus, the district has seven cases among staff at the moment.

“Some of you have inquired why we can’t go to distance instruction,” Krause wrote. “The state of California discontinued allowing distance instruction effective July 1, 2021.”

However, students can still pursue an independent study program or modified quarantine option via Google Classroom, she added.

“Again, we know that there is a lot of frustration, confusion, and anger about this ongoing situation and we share those sentiments,” she said in her letter. “Our staff are doing their very best with limited support to be able to keep our schools open. Unfortunately, we feel like we’re on our own here in Santa Cruz County without much support from local public health nor the state of California to be able to have other options for providing instruction for our students right now.

“We are hopeful that this surge will pass through quickly and then we can come out of it in February in better shape.”

Drew Penner
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected]

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