Teacher Mary Flynn answering questions at Main Street Elementary School in Soquel this week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )
COVID K-12

‘Doing our best’: How some Santa Cruz County parents are navigating a return to school amid Omicron surge

Parents of students in K-12 schools are struggling to make decisions about what is best for their children as COVID-19 cases surge across the county and among students. Both the county and schools have recorded their highest number of cases so far in the pandemic, putting stress on districts’ mitigation efforts.

As a teacher and a parent of four children, Mary Maleta Wright said she has surrendered to the fact that January will continue to be a very difficult month.

“And February,” she said, “I’m hoping will be better.”

With a record 880 active known COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday morning among the 111 school sites reporting to the County Office of Education, Santa Cruz County school districts are feeling the full effects of the ultra-contagious Omicron variant. Still, public health experts don’t believe the county has yet reached its outbreak peak as case rates have continued to soar this past week.

Maleta Wright is one of thousands of parents who are trying to maintain calm amid this new surge and after almost two years of rapidly changing circumstances and uncertainty. She has three kids attending Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary School, part of the Soquel Union Elementary School District, and she teaches English at Pacific Coast Charter School in Watsonville.

“I feel like in the fall, everything felt fine. We were doing indoor playdates, and they felt pretty good. And I think we have just had to adapt with the surges of the virus,” she said. “And now we’re not doing indoor playdates. It feels like when I wake up, I’m like, ‘What’s gonna happen today?’”

Recently, parents and teachers were informed of updated guidance from the California Department of Public Health that aligns the required isolation period for students who test positive with the latest guidance for the general public from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The isolation period for students who test positive was reduced from 10 days to five if the student tests negative five or more days after the positive test, in addition to following other public health measures.

Main Street Elementary School Principal Ronnie Platt said having to update parents on the new guidance has been difficult.

Main Street Elementary School Principal Ronnie Platt.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

It’s been the most challenging year to date. I’ve been in education for 20 years. And I can’t put my finger on why it’s so challenging. I think it’s just the change — the constant change and having to turn on a dime constantly.

— Ronnie Platt, Main Street principal

“It’s been the most challenging year to date,” he said. “I’ve been in education for 20 years. And I can’t put my finger on why it’s so challenging. I think it’s just the change — the constant change and having to turn on a dime constantly.”

On Monday, he said seven out of the 17 classrooms were on modified quarantine — meaning there was a possible exposure in the classroom. Asymptomatic students on modified quarantine can choose to come to school but must be tested twice a week during the following 10 days. Symptomatic students are supposed to stay home.

He said no teachers had tested positive so far. While he said the school provides the positive results to the county to keep track of cases, he didn’t have exact case numbers with him.

“They’ve gone up enormously,” he said, adding that the school hadn’t had any classrooms on modified quarantine since early November. “I think this week’s gonna be the worst week. I think the surge is going to be the highest, but the data is not going to reflect it until a couple of weeks from now. Just seeing what I see, I think this week’s gonna be the hardest.”

One family’s Omicron experience

For Julie DeBernardo, who has one child at New Brighton Middle School and the other at Soquel High School, said despite all the inconvenience and uncertainty, things are feeling better considering so many people are vaccinated. Her 11-year-old son Dominic, who attends New Brighton, tested positive over the weekend and was feeling mild symptoms.

“It’s kind of like walking on eggshells with just wondering [when something could happen] and I almost feel like it’s not so much a worry of what the virus is going to do to their families,” she said. “I feel like it’s more of an inconvenience because the testing and the waiting time and then having to miss school or work. I think that’s what’s causing a lot of anxiety right now.”

I feel like it’s more of an inconvenience because the testing and the waiting time and then having to miss school or work. I think that’s what’s causing a lot of anxiety right now.

Dominic said doing classwork from home has been all right, but he prefers in-person learning. He recalled what it was like to go back to school in the fall after being remote for the prior year.

“It was way better to be in person than on a Zoom screen every day at home,” he said. “And it was way easier to learn.”

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DeBernardo said after Dominic tested positive for COVID-19, she contacted all the potential exposures and the rest of her family members got tested. No one else in the family has tested positive so far. She said Dominic will test again on Thursday, and if he tests negative he may return to school on Friday.

“I kind of felt like it was just a matter of time before I would hear about him being exposed or maybe even getting it,” she said. “I feel better that he’s vaccinated. I’m super glad he was able to finish his vaccinations in November.”

‘This is hard,’ says one superintendent

Last week, Soquel Union Elementary School District Superintendent Scott Turnbull said that between New Year’s Day and Jan. 6, a total of 29 students had tested positive.

“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,” he said. “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.”

While several parents Lookout spoke with were certain they want their children to attend in-person classes, a couple of them were either very against in-person classes or more hesitant to send their children.

Alia Karter has two kids in preschool at Pacific Elementary School. Twins Trinity and Tristin are 4 1/2 years old and have been regularly getting tested. Karter said the result from one of their tests, which was done on Thursday, came back as incomplete on Tuesday.

Because of the uncertainty and surge in cases, she said she decided to keep her kids home. Karter said the school provided her with the children’s schoolwork in a packet and has been accommodating. She said she hopes that her kids can return to school next week.

“I think we’re all just doing our best to continue living life as normal as possible,” she said. “It’s probably the healthiest and best thing for the kids and everyone.”