A parent holds an at-home COVID test Monday at Main Street Elementary in Soquel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Back to school amid Omicron: Greater emphasis on testing, improved masks from K-12 to UC Santa Cruz

As K-12 students, teachers and staff return to in-person classes, community members are feeling nervous but encouraged by the increased access to testing and improved quality of masks. While UC Santa Cruz is starting with remote instruction this week, Cabrillo College, with its later start date of Jan. 24, is planning a regular start but still closely monitoring cases.

Ana Lilia Marin spent part of her Tuesday at Bay View Elementary, picking up antigen test kits for her two daughters ahead of their first day back at school. Such are the latest post-holiday break tasks as kids head back to class in a moment clouded by a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant.

To help K-12 schools reopen with in-person classes, the state provided millions of antigen test kits to schools across California. Santa Cruz County schools were allotted enough for each student to receive a test kit that includes two tests.

Marin has two daughters returning to in-person classes this week: an 8-year-old who has received her first dose of the vaccine and a 13-year-old who has received her first two doses.

“I feel more safe because all of the kids have tests,” she said. “Because if someone comes [to school] infected it would be chaos and everyone would get infected. It’s great that preventative measures are being taken so people don’t get infected.”

Education officials and families are cautious about how current mitigation measures will hold up with the highly infectious Omicron variant, but they’re also encouraged by efforts to increase the frequency of testing.

As expected, cases have increased in Santa Cruz County following the holidays and the spread of Omicron — a trend seen statewide and nationally. About 700 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the county over the weekend, according to Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Dr. Cal Gordon.

“It’s a pretty dramatic increase,” he said Monday, adding that at public testing sites, the demand is exceeding supply. “Every indication is that Omicron is here and I think almost everybody in the county knows someone, a friend or relative who might have symptoms that might be consistent with Omicron.”

Sam Rolens, spokesperson for Santa Cruz City Schools, said testing over the winter break revealed a number of cases.

“From our between-term testing with Inspire [Diagnostics], we had 106 positives from Dec. 26-Jan. 3,” he said, citing figures for the district’s elementary and secondary schools. “Eighty-six were students, and 20 were staff. Those positives are isolating, and obviously since it was between terms there was no potential exposure related to school for those cases.”

In addition to Marin, teachers and staff and other parents stopped by Bay View Elementary to pick up test kits. Donna Geffken, program coordinator for the after-school academy, was there to greet them and make sure they understood how to properly use the kits and submit results.

Stacy Craig hands out an at-home COVID-19 test to parent Chad Waluk
Stacy Craig hands out an at-home COVID-19 test to parent Chad Waluk at Santa Cruz Montessori on Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She said the most common question people had Tuesday was, “Do I have to take this before I come back to school?”

District officials across the county have been encouraging parents and guardians to get their children tested at drive-thru clinics or with test kits before the start of in-person classes. However, it is not required.

One thing that is now required in the Santa Cruz City Schools district is that teachers and staff must wear KN95 or N95 masks, according to Casey Carlson, president of Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers. She said educators are nervous about the return to in-person classes but thankful that the district will be providing N95 and KN95 masks to staff and teachers.

A Los Angeles area legislator is proposing to change the way California K-12 schools are funded, focusing on enrollment...

She said she hasn’t heard from any teachers who would prefer starting remotely and that generally teachers agree on the importance of having in-person instruction.

One potential stumbling block in the event of an outbreak, Rolens said, could be substitute teachers.

“We are doing all we can to reach out to new substitutes,” he said Wednesday as the district’s elementary schools resumed classes. “However, since the national substitute shortage puts us in a precarious position in the event of any necessary quarantines. We are short in our backup, even if we have all of our instruction positions fully staffed.”

That said, he added, “My understanding is that today was a pretty normal school day, and things went well.”

While most districts in the county are back in session this week, Pajaro Valley Unified School District doesn’t begin instruction until next week. Still, county officials began working weeks ago on increasing sites’ testing capacity and on the logistics of picking up and distributing the test kits.

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said sites sponsored by the County Office of Education tested 3,200 students and distributed 3,600 test kits on Sunday.

In addition, distribution has been happening at school sites across the county, as at Bay View Elementary, leading up to the first day of school.

“We don’t really know what’s going to happen when we get everybody back together in the classroom,” said Carlson.

Inspire Diagnostics tech hands out testing kits at the Cabrillo College COVID-19 testing location on Jan. 3, 2022.
Inspire Diagnostics tech Gabriela Bravo hands out COVID-19 at-home testing kits to students and parents at the Cabrillo College COVID-19 testing location Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

UCSC sees ‘highest number of cases we’ve recorded’

After UC Santa Cruz announced it would start the semester with two weeks of remote learning, it sent instructions to students and employees regarding testing and sequestering upon their return to campus Monday.

All students are required to test 48 hours before returning to campus, and depending on the specific student’s living arrangement or vaccination status, they have different sequestering and testing instructions.

About 1,000 students were tested on campus Sunday, which led to a total of 42 students and six employees testing positive — the highest number UCSC has recorded so far, according to the university’s online data dashboard.

UCSC's COVID positivity rate reached an all-time high this week.

UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said university clinics tested another 2,000 people on Monday and were on track to test another 2,000 people on Tuesday.

Fifth-year literature and psychology student Miranda Huezo was one of those students to get tested on Monday. She said the university has a variety of options for testing and has made it accessible. However, with a new testing provider, she said there appeared to be a few roadblocks, including a more than 30-minute wait to get tested.

Hernandez-Jason said the new provider is working on streamlining its testing process but the daily testing capacity is between 2,000 and 3,000.

With any transition, there are some hiccups and technical things that need to be worked through.

— Scott Hernandez-Jason

“With any transition, there are some hiccups and technical things that need to be worked through,” he said.

Regarding the potential to extend the two weeks of remote instruction, he said the university is closely monitoring cases, and he didn’t have an answer for what conditions the university would use to decide if it were to extend that.

For UCSC student Huezo, students following through with testing before coming to in-person classes is crucial. She has a compromised immune system and was testing twice weekly during the fall semester. Being remote has worked well for her, she said, and she appreciates the precautions the university has been taking.

But she is concerned about the return to classes, specifically those where more than 100 students are in one room and there isn’t space for social distancing.

“I’m happy to be online. And I’m honestly really satisfied with extending it. As long as it takes to feel comfortable,” she said. “But it’s getting difficult with the Omicron variant because it just seems like we’re all going to get it and that’s what it is.”

Cabrillo will continue to monitor

Cabrillo College is encouraging all students and employees to get tested before returning to campus, according to spokesperson Kristin Fabos. She said because classes aren’t scheduled to resume until Jan. 24, officials don’t anticipate needing to start with remote instruction.

The school is following the guidance of the COE and the California Department of Public Health, which has not recommended that instruction go online, according to Fabos.