With local schools restarting this week after the holiday break, administrators are facing the prospect of trying to keep campuses open as COVID-19 case counts seem sure to rise due to the highly transmissible omicron variant.
The same strategies that have been employed all along – masking, vaccinations, boosters and testing – continue to be used, Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Superintendent Nellie Meyer said.
Mountain View Whisman Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and Los Altos School District Superintendent Jeff Baier pointed to many of the same measures.
"We're going to keep cases down by implementing the same protocols that we have throughout this, with ventilation, with masking, with hand hygiene. We're also strongly encouraging vaccinations," Baier said.
While moving forward with the new semester, Meyer said her district is creating contingency plans in the event that certain classes could have to revert to online learning.
"We're really discussing all possibilities, but at this time our No. 1 goal is to keep students in school," Meyer said.
Pre-omicron, local schools saw relatively few cases among students and staff. During the fall semester, MVLA's weekly case counts were in the single digits, with at most six students testing positive in a single seven-day period.
By Wednesday morning of this week, MVLA had already surpassed that record, with 15 students and six staff members testing positive since Monday.
"Looking at the spring, it's very dependent on how this week and this month goes," Meyer said.
Districts also don't generally yet have a full picture of how many students and staff may have contracted the virus over the holiday break.
In Mountain View Whisman, 10 students and nine staffers have reported testing positive in the past seven days, as of Wednesday. However, Rudolph said that more complete numbers will be known later in the week, based on testing the district conducted Tuesday.
Over in the Palo Alto Unified School District, Superintendent Don Austin struck a somber note on the risk that omicron may pose to in-person learning, saying that schools are likely to be hit with classroom closures in the coming weeks.
He emphasized that the district will do everything in its power to limit the spread of COVID-19 and will minimize closures as much as possible, but said that they could become necessary for two reasons: at the state or county's behest due to high case numbers or because staff absences make it impossible to operate classes. The second, Austin said, appears more likely.
"I think the state and county are really going to try their best not to close schools, but there could be a day when we just can't staff them," Austin said.
Local schools, like many industries nationwide, have been struggling with staffing shortages in recent months. Finding substitute teachers has been particularly difficult, and the need may be greater as more teachers have to quarantine.
Meyer agreed with Austin's assessment that staffing shortages pose the biggest risk. The district is tracking its staffing levels closely and working to ensure enough substitutes are in place.
At the high school level, Meyer said that closing individual classrooms due to COVID outbreaks would be complicated because students rotate between periods throughout the day, though she said an individual class might be moved online if there wasn't a teacher available in person.
Over in the Los Altos School District, Baier said that he's currently confident about reopening schools this week, crediting the community for its seriousness in addressing the pandemic, and students and staff for their adherence to health requirements.
"We don't anticipate having to move classes back online," Baier said.
At the same time, he agreed that staffing is the biggest concern and said it was conceivable a classroom could have to stay home for a day or two if someone couldn't be found to teach face-to-face.
Rudolph said his district is putting strategies in place to mitigate the risk of closure, such as hiring full-time substitute teachers for each school, adding that it's difficult to calculate the chance that sending students home will become necessary.
"Those would be done on a case-by-case basis in the event that we need to go down that road," Rudolph said.
School officials also pointed to high staff vaccination rates as a protection against closures. Educators who come into close contact with someone who tests positive can generally continue to teach in-person, so long as they are vaccinated, asymptomatic and get tested. Students are also able to get vaccinated.
Impacts beyond the classrooms
The impact of omicron on local schools may be especially felt outside the classroom, both Meyer and Austin said. Competitive team sports are likely to face particular hurdles, Austin warned, because both teams have to be able to play for a game to occur.
"I think it's going to be massively disruptive to high school athletics," Austin said. "I'll be shocked if we make it through the seasons."
Austin raised concerns about what he characterized as a lack of guidance from Santa Clara County on how schools should respond to the omicron variant, including questions about what the school closure metrics will be.
"The county has been oddly quiet for about a month," Austin said, adding that it feels like the beginning of the pandemic, when school officials were scrambling for answers.
"None of us are health experts. We're just being told 'keep schools open,'" Austin said. "We can't answer all the questions that people have — it's just not possible."
Meyer also said that schools don't currently have metrics on what would trigger a school closure, though she spoke positively about the leadership the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health has shown during the pandemic.
In response to questions from this news organization, Santa Clara County's COVID-19 media relations team said in a statement that the county is aligned with the state's safety guidance for schools.
"Through the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the county hosts regular COVID-19 meetings with local districts, proactively communicates anytime the state of California provides new guidance, and reaches out as other relevant information becomes available," the county said. "Additionally, the Santa Clara County Office of Education is accessible whenever superintendents or schools require additional support."
Trying to stop the spread
As classes resume, districts are taking a number of steps to minimize COVID-19 transmission, including emphasizing the importance of testing.
In anticipation of increased cases after gatherings, holiday travel and the emergent variant, the state distributed COVID-19 rapid tests for schools to give to every K-12 public school student in California. Many local districts also offer on-campus testing programs.
Mountain View Whisman runs a pool testing program, where classes are tested together and if the class comes back positive, each student is then tested individually. Los Altos runs a similar pool testing program.
Over in MVLA, the district offers daily PCR testing, which is also available to the community.
Palo Alto Unified offers weekly COVID-19 testing at each school, plus daily testing at Cubberley Community Center, open to any Palo Alto resident.
Tod Ford and his two children were among those standing in line at Cubberley on Monday. The family decided to get tested for COVID-19 after traveling to Lake Tahoe over the holiday break. Ford said he expects the omicron variant will cause disruptions in the coming weeks, but praised the school district for offering widespread testing, saying he felt they were making the best of a bad situation.
Ford's oldest child, Tai, is a sixth grader at Fletcher Middle School and has received two vaccine doses. Tai said they weren't particularly concerned about returning to school, though they recognized that some students would likely end up testing positive.
"I'm going to assume that there's going to be cases and that I will have exposures," Tai said.