A class at Main Street Elementary School in Soquel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

How Santa Cruz County’s public schools have avoided the higher absence rates, sickouts seen elsewhere

While Santa Cruz County public schools have taken on the burden of teaching students in person during a pandemic, they’ve managed to avoid challenges such as sickouts and abnormally high absence rates seen in other parts of the country.

Teachers, school staff, students and parents in Santa Cruz County public schools are entering their third year of the pandemic amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

They’ve adjusted to new protocol after new protocol, they’ve lost loved ones and they’ve done what they can to make the right decisions for their families.

While some families have not felt safe enough to send their children to school and have wanted to return to remote learning, there have not been organized efforts to do so in Santa Cruz as in other regions in the state and country.

In San Francisco and Oakland, for example, students and teachers have organized to voluntarily stay home from school, actions widely being called sickouts, after they say not enough has been done to keep them safe amid the Omicron surge, the San Francisco Chronicle reported; they say the districts have not provided enough testing and should provide KN95 and N95 masks. In Hayward, district officials implemented a districtwide week of remote learning after too many teachers were absent earlier this month.

Thus far, Santa Cruz County public schools have avoided sickouts and higher absence rates seen in those Bay Area districts. County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said attendance for students across the county has been between 70% and 80%, and for staff it’s been at about 80%. As of Monday, his office was reporting 3,114 active known cases from 112 schools. While cases are still high, county officials say there are signs they should begin to decline.

Teachers, parents and school officials think the county might be avoiding higher absence rates and sickouts for a variety of reasons: a strong commitment for having in-person instruction, more amicable relationships between unions and districts, the adherence to safety guidelines and the availability of testing.

Sabbah said the County Office of Education, with Inspire Diagnostics, is testing about 8,000 people a day and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and antigen testing is available at over 80 schools in the county. He said the COE is not planning for any remote instruction to occur in the county and added that the state legislature has restrictions against the use of distance learning.

“There’s a variety of reasons why we wouldn’t want to go to distance learning. One is that we think it is detrimental to students and their mental health and their education,” Sabbah said. “Also, with the positivity rate so high in the community, distance learning doesn’t necessarily reduce the risk for students that much.”

On Tuesday, Jeremy Powell was feeling the impact of the surge as he was home from his teaching job waiting to get results from his son’s PCR test. A substitute took over his eighth grade social studies and literature class at Shoreline Middle School for the day.

“It’s definitely maddening, and I’m a professional educator,” he said. “So I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who is a single parent or someone who is juggling a couple of jobs or someone who’s struggling with home insecurity.”

Powell, co-president of the Live Oak Elementary Teachers Association, said that despite the chaos of the past few weeks, he feels Santa Cruz County officials and schools have been quick to provide access to testing and vaccines.

Soquel Elementary School Principal Eric Witter hands out at-home COVID tests.

“I definitely feel that my district has done a great job as well as Faris, as far as making teachers feel they have opportunities for testing and they have access to KN95s,” he said, also adding that relations between the union and the district are also decent.

Live Oak School District Superintendent Daisy Morales said the district has an “amazing group of teachers” and they agree “that the best way to teach kids is in person.”

Morales and several other school districts’ superintendents told Lookout that they believe they have avoided high teacher absenteeism because their teachers are committed to in-person instruction. When teachers have been absent, they’ve been able to keep schools open with recent hires of resident substitute teachers. Resident substitute teachers, also known as super subs, work every day rather than being called when there is a vacancy.

And, when they aren’t available, principals step in to teach, and after that resource is exhausted certificated employees in district offices step in.

Soquel Union Elementary School District Superintendent Scott Turnbull said his district has fared well despite the challenges. In the first three weeks back to school after the winter break, SUESD saw 70 teacher absences — a figure he said was typical for this time of year.

“Therefore, as it relates to the highly contagious nature of the Omicron variant, our district has been quite fortunate,” he said.

Both the Live Oak and Soquel school districts say that hiring resident substitute teachers made a big difference.

“This approach was taken knowing that daily substitute teacher availability would be a challenge for all districts,” Turnbull said. “Additionally, our district raised both our daily substitute rate of pay and our long-term substitute rate.”

Branciforte Middle School teacher Kathy Sandidge had to stay home recently after testing positive for COVID-19. She was out for just over a week and had her first day back on Monday.

“I feel like our schools have really taken into account what our kids need,” she said. “I haven’t felt any lack of care by our district in regards to what we need.”

Branciforte Middle School is part of the Santa Cruz City Schools district, whose teachers union is led by Casey Carlson. As president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers, Carlson has been listening to teachers’ concerns and working with the district on safety measures such as providing KN95 and N95 masks.

She has also been paying attention to what’s been happening in neighboring districts, such as those in the Bay Area.

“Our Santa Cruz City Schools have had testing at least twice a week at every site, since August,” she said. “Since the beginning of the school year, it’s never stopped. So we’ve had regular testing this whole time, which is one of the things people were walking out about. And, the other thing is we had [personal protective equipment] for everyone.”

She added that while staffing has been a “huge strain” on everyone, it hasn’t reached the extreme levels other regions have seen.

“I think it’s taking a toll on everyone,” she said. “But I think that overall the toll would be worse if we had students go back to distance learning.”