Inside a fourth grade classroom at MacQuiddy Elementary School in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘We’re in this together’: Pajaro Valley schools return to class amid Omicron and surge of absences

Santa Cruz County’s largest school district returned to school this week as the Omicron variant continues to contribute to record-breaking case counts across the country. Pajaro Valley Unified School District teachers and parents are happy kids are back in school, even as they brace for more cases.

Edith Ruiz is excited to see her kindergartners after a long holiday break, but she’s also concerned about the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases as the Omicron variant rapidly spreads across the county and through schools.

The Landmark Elementary School teacher has her students to think about, and she also has a freshman daughter at Watsonville High School.

“As a mother and a teacher, I’m scared,” she said. “The Santa Cruz County Office of Education and our district are working really hard to get everything for the community, like providing the rapid tests and providing access to testing sites close to the schools. We all need to do our part because we’re in this together.”

Cases have skyrocketed in Santa Cruz County public schools over the past couple of weeks, as they have across the county and country. The COE reported 1,041 active known cases as of Monday, according to its online dashboard. A total of 1,948 positive tests have been reported since the county began keeping records at the beginning of the academic year.

Between Aug. 31 and the beginning of December, active known cases varied between about five cases to around 100 for all the county schools. But as Omicron began to make its way through communities during the holiday season, infections rapidly shot up. At the same time, more cases are being detected due to the increase in testing ahead of the post-break return to school in 2022.

The Pajaro Valley Unified School District, the largest in the county with 33 schools, is reporting 156 positive cases for students and 39 for staff for the current month, according to its online dashboard. These numbers could include cases that are no longer active as it simply represents the number of positive cases reported since Jan. 1.

Teacher Suzanne Rose in her fourth grade classroom at MacQuiddy Elementary in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The dashboard doesn’t include students who tested positive before returning to school using take-home test kits provided by the state through the COE. Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said that about 7% of students who completed the tests came back positive — which matches countywide rates. That amounts to approximately 1,300 students testing positive between Jan. 4 and Sunday, she estimated, as part of the district’s distribution of take-home tests.

Ruiz said on Monday and Tuesday she had eight students absent and on Wednesday she had six students absent, which is abnormally high for her 24-student classroom at Landmark in Watsonville.

It appears that the cases have also affected staff absences.

Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers union president Nelly Vaquera-Boggs said there were 91 certificated absences Monday and 88 on Tuesday across the entire district. However, those absences could be for a variety of reasons, including any not related to COVID-19 exposures or positive tests.

“It is a unified task to work together to ensure our students are being welcomed back and also provide a safe space in schools, their continued learning,” she said.

Students masked up in a classroom at MacQuiddy Elementary in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Rodriguez said the district manages that number of absences on Fridays generally, but it is monitoring them. She said administrators are filling in and teachers are using their prep periods to substitute as well. The district has over 1,200 certificated employees, according to the superintendent.

Staffing shortages have been a challenge across the state, even prior to the pandemic. On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that gives school districts more flexibility to hire substitutes. The order lowers state barriers to hire short-term substitute teachers, allows them to have assignments extended and adds flexibility to bring retired teachers into classrooms through March 31, 2022.

“We knew that the case rate was going to really increase drastically this next week and it happened,” said Rodriguez. “So I think the staff has really taken that on and been determined to make the best of it. I’m going into classrooms and instruction is happening and the students are glad to be back and staff is glad to be back.”

At MacQuiddy Elementary School in Watsonville on Wednesday, fourth grade students in Suzanne Rose’s classroom learned about how to mail letters. They all wore masks, and several enthusiastically raised their hands to answer questions like why a stamp is needed on an envelope. Two doors on opposite sides of the classroom were open, bringing in a crisp breeze.

Principal Michael Dougherty said while the school is managing absences, things are going as well as can be expected.

“I think everybody’s a little anxious just in general, but it’s great to see the kids,” he said. “They’re happy. Staff is showing up. We have our absences. But for the most part, we’re here.”