Backpacks hang outside a classroom at Main Street Elementary in Soquel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID K-12

Next step in keeping Santa Cruz schools going: ‘Substantial Exposure.’ What we know about that new protocol

As COVID-19 continues to challenge school districts’ responses to unprecedented rates of transmission in their communities, they continue to adjust protocol in order to be able to keep schools open.

Santa Cruz High School, as well as all schools in the Soquel Unified Elementary School District, announced this week that due to the high rate of COVID-19 exposures among their students, they are implementing new safety protocols — a move likely to be adopted by more schools throughout the county as the Omicron variant surges.

The changes include weekly notifications of exposures and increased access to testing. Previously, notifications of exposures could happen multiple times a week based on contact tracing efforts. Instead, notifications of exposures will be reduced to a general notification once a week.

This protocol comes after the California Department of Public Health announced new guidelines last week for K-12 schools which the department says will help schools stay open while using approaches that are less intensive than contact tracing.

Santa Cruz High Principal Michelle Poirier spelled it out to families in a letter Wednesday: “The level of COVID exposure on our campus has reached the point that we can assume that most students have been exposed to a COVID-positive individual. This level is called a Substantial Exposure.”

Santa Cruz City Schools District spokesperson Sam Rolens said eight of the district’s 10 schools are likely to implement the new protocol within the next week.

“Since the vast majority of our students are either vaccinated or registered for on-campus testing (or both), we don’t expect this to be a significant change for our school community,” he said. “Hopefully, the biggest change will be a safer school experience and a higher degree of confidence in our COVID safety. For students, it should only mean an extra 15 minutes a week to get a swab.”

Poirier summarized the changes in her letter to families saying that “unvaccinated students MUST test twice per week; vaccinated or those who’ve been COVID-positive within the past 90 days are strongly encouraged to test; unvaccinated students who do not test must begin at-home quarantine and participate in Independent Studies; and unvaccinated students may not participate in extracurricular activities such as athletics and band.”

She wrote in the letter that school officials expect the high school to stay in substantial exposure status for two to four weeks.

In a similar letter to families of the entire Soquel elementary school district, Superintendent Scott Turnbull said all schools in the district would be implementing the new changes. The district’s online dashboard is reporting 119 active cases among students and 10 among teachers.

At least one district, San Lorenzo Valley Unified, announced to families Tuesday it wouldn’t be implementing the protocol. The district has 73 active cases among students, according to its online dashboard.

READ THE STORY: Change of course: Many Santa Cruz County schools to allow full-time return to classrooms in matter of days
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Superintendent Chris Scheirmeyer, in a letter, wrote that administrators met Tuesday to review the new guidance and decided against it.

“We will continue with the same practice regarding notifications, exposure testing, and positive cases that we have done in the past,” the letter reads. “SLVUSD has one of the lowest positivity rates in the county and that is due largely in part to SLV’s weekly testing through Inspire Diagnostics and the support of our families in following the CDPH guidance, as well as the dedication of our staff to implement the guidelines and support our students on a daily basis.”

He told Lookout on Wednesday afternoon that the district is seeing its highest levels of student absences at around 16% of its student population. He said staff is providing those students short-term independent studies.

Schiermeyer also provided more background about the district’s decision not to use the guidance.

“Under the substantial exposure, a district assumes everyone is exposed and no longer is required to send individualized exposure notices and instead are able to send a school-wide letter,” he said. “Being a smaller school district, at this time we determined, although our staff is stretched, that we could continue to provide the individualized notices so parents knew specifically if their child had a school exposure or not. We continue to provide the twice a week testing for those exposed and we follow the CDPH guidelines related to modified quarantine.”

Presented by Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente has partnered with systems change agency SupplyBank.org to disperse donations of sanitizing wipes, N95...

Rolens, the Santa Cruz City Schools spokesperson, said each school site will review its number of known positives and make a decision each week on whether or not it will go into substantial exposure status.

“This protocol was developed in cooperation with county health, in response to the new CDPH guidance that came out last week,” he said. “This increased testing comes at a time when we know community spread is hitting record highs and we want to be able to bolster campus safety.”

He said the district is finalizing a new set of numbers for its online COVID-19 dashboard and officials estimate it will be updated Thursday.