Quick Take:

With thousands of students returning to schools across Santa Cruz County this week, school districts are having to navigate another unprecedented challenge: the highly infectious COVID-19 variant Omicron, spreading across communities. 

The Omicron variant is presenting an enormous challenge for school districts as they begin 2022.

Just when some students and staff might have felt they were getting used to public safety guidelines almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, a new, highly infectious variant brings more uncertainty and frustration for some.

To try to prevent students from coming to school while sick, state and local education officials distributed test kits ahead of the start of classes. The majority of the 40,000 kits provided to Santa Cruz County were distributed to students this past week, according to Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah.

“The positivity rate from tests performed on students since Sunday, Jan. 2, is currently around 7%,” he said. “Without diligent testing, some portion of those cases may have gone undetected. Active cases across Santa Cruz County are also surging significantly.”

Superintendents told Lookout about the first couple of days back, how they’re feeling and how many cases their districts have reported so far. While district officials say they’re doing what they can to keep track of COVID-19 cases, some of the numbers might not be accurate due to the time it takes for results from take-home test kits to be submitted to the school sites.

And, with several districts experiencing teacher absences due to COVID-19, concerns are rising for finding substitutes when they were already in short supply locally, and across the state and country.

While most school districts returned to class this week for the first time in 2022, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District doesn’t start until Monday. District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez, in a Friday news release, thanked students and staff who picked up test kits ahead of the start of classes.

“As a result, on Sunday, more than 19,000 students and staff will simultaneously use their rapid antigen tests at home to ensure PVUSD is prepared for a safe return to in-person learning on Monday,” she wrote.

Here’s what the other superintendents had to say:

Pacific Elementary School District

Schools: Pacific Elementary

Positive cases reported between Jan. 1-6: One student tested positive out of 134 students who have been tested; zero teachers and one staff member had tested positive.

“I feel lucky about the numbers cited above and grateful that our staff, parents, and students have made our safety protocols work so well. Before Jan. 1, we have only had five positive people on campus, but no on-campus transmissions! I also feel overwhelmed and fatigued because COVID has made everything so much more difficult. It is a huge amount of extra work and we received zero federal dollars in COVID funding to deal with the extra work and expense. I appreciate how fortunate I am that when the never-ending struggle to deal with COVID makes me feel exasperated, I can get up from my desk and visit the classrooms or the playground and feel rejuvenated by the kids. They make me feel like all the struggles are worthwhile because they represent the hope for a better future.”

— Superintendent Eric Gross

Bonny Doon Union Elementary School District

Schools: Bonny Doon Elementary

Positive cases reported between Jan. 1-6: One case — but due to privacy concerns because of the small size of the district, Superintendent Mike Heffner declined to say if it was a student or teacher.

Mike Heffner is the Boony Doon School principal as well as superintendent of the small, rural school district.
Mike Heffner is the Boony Doon School principal as well as superintendent of the small, rural school district. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“In all honesty and fairness, it’s exhausting for a small school district like ours, the staffing to manage the realities of the pandemic and the demands of the pandemic, as well as the demands the state has put on us with these categorical funds, these one-time funds and the report-writing is very challenging and overwhelming and exhausting. I’m just lucky I have the best staff in the county, and parents and amazing kids. We really do rally together.”

— Superintendent/Principal Mike Heffner

Live Oak School District

Schools: Del Mar Elementary, Green Acres Elementary, Live Oak Elementary, Shoreline Middle School, Tierra Pacifica Charter and Ocean Alternative Education

Positive cases reported between Jan. 1-6: Eleven students have tested positive; the entire district has about 1,745 students. Two teachers have tested positive.

Live Oak School District Superintendent Dr. Daisy Morales.
Credit: LinkedIn

“It has everybody stressed out. The new variant mimics the cold so we’re being really vigilant…We’re just doing what we can to make sure we can keep schools open because that’s the goal. We’re back to the beginning of COVID where everybody is afraid of everybody. It’s not good because teachers are on pins and needles. We’re basically in survival mode.”

Superintendent Daisy Morales

Soquel Union Elementary School District

Schools: Main Street Elementary, Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary, Soquel Elementary and New Brighton Middle

Positive cases reported between Jan. 1-6: Twenty-nine students have tested positive; the entire district has almost 1,700 students. Zero teachers and two staff have tested positive.

“It’s definitely a complex challenge, but I am feeling grateful that all of our stakeholders, including staff, parents, and students, have taken the layers of COVID mitigation seriously. Our teachers and staff continue to provide high-quality instruction while we work through positive cases, isolation, and quarantine periods. Having a supportive County Office of Education and superintendent team (with the other superintendents in the county) has made a big, and positive, difference for me. We just met with our principals this morning, for example, and the overriding emotion expressed was gratefulness for having access to regular COVID testing and the ability to collaborate and support each other while making difficult decisions through the pandemic. I’m not trying to candy-coat anything. This is hard, and every time it feels like we may be out of the woods a bit, something like Omicron comes along. Still, going through these challenges in a collaborative and supportive environment makes the situation so much better. Most importantly, the one thing all stakeholders agree on is how wonderful and important it is to have our students in school learning in person this year. That makes it all worthwhile.

— Superintendent Scott Turnbull

Mountain Elementary School District

Schools: Mountain Elementary

Positive cases reported between Jan. 1-6: Zero students have tested positive; the entire district has 141 students. Zero teachers and staff have tested positive.

Mountain Elementary School District Superintendent/Principal Megan Tresham.
Credit: Mountain Elementary School District website.

“Generally speaking, the mood on our campus and in our district is positive, there’s been a lot of excitement to be back at school and that has provided a much needed boost for teachers — to have some semblance of normalcy at school. The general mood is gratitude. … It’s been positive, even though it’s been hard and we’re tired.”

— Superintendent/Principal Megan Tresham

Santa Cruz City Schools

Schools: Bay View Elementary, DeLaveaga Elementary, Gault Elementary, Monarch Community School, Westlake Elementary, Branciforte Small Schools Campus, ARK Independent Studies, Branciforte Middle School, Costanoa Continuation School, Delta School, Harbor High, Mission Hill Middle School, Santa Cruz Adult School, Santa Cruz High and Soquel High

Positive cases reported between Jan. 1-6: One hundred and four students have tested positive; the entire district has about 6,000 students. A total of 18 teachers have tested positive; the entire district has 823 staff.

“We continue to be grateful that we are able to be together, to be learning in person. Changing protocols and circumstances can be challenging, but one of the things we’ve come to learn from the pandemic is how to be flexible and ready to adapt. We appreciate our students, our families, and our staff’s patience as we work to implement new protocols that will allow us to be safe as we continue to learn together.

“The impression I’ve got from our campuses is that we’re cautious, but we are optimistic and everyone is happy to be back.”

— Superintendent Kris Munro

San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District

Schools: Boulder Creek Elementary, San Lorenzo Valley Elementary, San Lorenzo Valley Middle School, San Lorenzo Valley High and Charter Program

COVID-19 data as of Jan. 7: A total of 30 active cases among students; the entire district has about 2,450 students. A total of 10 active cases among staff.

“The second half of the school year has begun and 2022 is already off to an interesting start with the Omicron variant and new guidelines as it relates to students who test positive and their isolation period. As many of you are aware there has been a rise in COVID cases across the county and SLVUSD is not exempt from these increases. We appreciate and want to thank all of the families that came to pick up a home test kit prior to the return to school. The efforts to quickly coordinate, communicate, and distribute the test kits to families did help to reduce the number of school exposures. Both the week prior to school returning and this last week, SLVUSD has seen over one hundred 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. With that said, we do have school exposures occurring, please refer to our COVID Dashboard for the current list of our active school exposure cases. Active cases reflect school exposure cases that are active on the following Monday.”

— Superintendent Chris Schiermeyer, in a letter to families Friday

Scotts Valley Unified School District

Schools: Brook Knoll Elementary, Vine Hill Elementary, Scotts Valley Middle and Scotts Valley High

COVID-19 data as of Jan. 7: A total of 55 active cases among students and six active cases among staff.

“We hope you had an enjoyable and safe winter break. We have certainly started off this new year with significant challenges due to the current COVID situation. I first want to start off by acknowledging your frustration about the current impacts related to COVID. We too are frustrated with the situation. 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.”

–Superintendent Tanya Krause, in a letter to families on Friday

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...