Jamie Sanyal talks to her son Cooper, 8, as he gets ready to go to school at Bay View Elementary in Santa Cruz.
Jamie Sanyal talks to her son Cooper, 8, as he gets ready to go to school at Bay View Elementary in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Pencils, paper, PCR testing: Start of school year in Santa Cruz County amid Delta brings hopes and concerns

Dozens of students and school staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, but county and district officials have markedly stepped up testing procedures while keeping steady with masking and hygiene protocols.

For parents like Jamie Sanyal, who has three children and a family member at high risk of severe illness, there are endless uncertainties entering this school year: How contagious is the Delta variant? Should I homeschool my kids?

Almost 40,000 students are back in class in Santa Cruz County public schools this year — the third academic year during which students, parents and school staff are facing down the COVID-19 pandemic. The highly contagious Delta variant has brought new concerns about safety for a population that is still not entirely eligible for the vaccine, as vaccinations have not yet been approved for emergency use in children ages 11 and under.

With more than a dozen confirmed cases and Santa Cruz City Schools staff overwhelmed with too many students to test two weeks into classes, the district hired a firm to help test exposed students twice weekly.

And in a letter sent to parents from Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah — and co-signed by the county’s 10 district superintendents — officials announced a testing site for staff and students at Cabrillo College starting Tuesday. The site, in Parking Lot K, will be open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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The letter also announced a pilot program aimed at providing free, weekly PCR testing at nearly every county school.

As of the first week of school, more than 50% of eligible students — those between ages 12 and 17 — were vaccinated in the county. More than 60% of that age group have had at least one dose.

“I felt half-nervous, half-excited to start third grade,” said son Cooper Sanyal, 8, who attends Bay View Elementary in Santa Cruz. “Because I might not fit in I guess.”

He added he felt “fine” about the coronavirus.

After spending so much time remote, students and teachers say they are ecstatic to be back in the classroom. And at this point in the pandemic, masking and being hygienic is custom for most. But cases seem to be getting worse just as school is starting, and many have concerns and questions.

Though Cooper might not be concerned, his mother says since the Delta variant is so much more dangerous, schools should consider enforcing physical distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I don’t want to take any chance that my kid gets very sick,” said Jamie Sanyal.

Cooper Sanyal, 8, plays with his brother Gavin, 5, before heading off to school in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Almost three weeks into the school year, COVID numbers are growing. At Santa Cruz City Schools, 17 students and eight staff members had been confirmed positive, while in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District 36 students and 19 staff had been confirmed positive, according to the districts’ online COVID-19 dashboards.

That means just under 1,800 students in Santa Cruz City Schools have been exposed so far, per district data. The Pajaro Valley district does not list exposure numbers.

While the sheer number of students exposed might be alarming, Santa Cruz City Schools officials have repeatedly assured parents that since October, when students returned to a hybrid system of in-person and remote classes, their COVID-19 protocol of strict masking indoors, monitoring of symptoms daily and improved ventilation systems, among other measures, has prevented school transmission.

“To date, we haven’t had any spread on campus,” Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Kris Munro said last week.

When asked how the district knows there has been no spread, the district’s spokesperson said the district’s nurses and County Office of Health have done contact tracing for every positive case.

“We reach out to all their contacts within their window of transmission to see where they could have contracted COVID,” Sam Rolens wrote in an email to Lookout Santa Cruz. “We also now test all students who had exposure with each positive case, and can tell whether anyone exposed tests positive [for] COVID.”

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The number of exposed students and the volume of testing necessary for the Santa Cruz district’s quarantine protocol quickly overwhelmed staff who were initially carrying out testing on campus. In order to keep up with the demand, the district partnered with Inspired Diagnostics. Starting Tuesday, the company will be helping the district with screening testing and modified quarantine requirements to test kids twice a week when there is an exposure at school.

As for the district’s staff, Munro has previously said more than 90% have been vaccinated. Vaccinated staff will be tested every other week and unvaccinated staff will be tested weekly, as required by the governor.

Casey Carlson, president of Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers, a union representing about 400 members across nine schools, said the Santa Cruz City Schools District has done a great job following public health guidance and taking steps such as improving ventilation systems.

“That’s helped but with this Delta variant being so much more contagious, there’s definitely concern about proximity,” she said. “There’s definitely anxiety about it and I think a lot of it comes from teachers who are also parents … they could carry a breakthrough case to someone at home.”

The lack of physical distancing was one of the primary reasons Jen Rhoads-Howard decided to take her daughter out of school midway through the first day of classes.

Juliet Rhoads, 6, couldn’t wait to start kindergarten at Brook Knoll Elementary in the Scotts Valley Unified School District. That’s why, despite Rhoads-Howard’s concerns about her daughter’s medical issues, she decided it would be best for Juliet to have that experience.

“She was looking forward to this so much,” said Rhoads-Howard. “This kid has been through so much. It’s been a really hard year for her … I wanted to give her that first day.”

California Department of Public Health guidance does not recommend schools enforce physical distancing, citing masking and other measures as being sufficient to prevent transmission. Many local districts, including Scotts Valley, are following that guidance.

“It just came down to what the school was able to provide and it was not good enough for me,” she said. Instead, Rhoads-Howard is enrolling her daughter in independent study.

As districts across the county struggle to tend to the social and emotional needs of students who didn’t have the activities and relationship-building experiences a typical year would have brought, Santa Cruz City Schools staff say they hope to be a starting point.

Spokesperson Rolens said by adding mental and emotional support counselors to their schools, adding support staff so teachers can focus on students, providing free food to everyone and launching a peer tutoring program, among other initiatives, the district hopes to build relationships and provide social-emotional support.

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“At schools you need a connection point with the community,” he said. “We feel we have a responsibility to lead the restorative process out of the weirdest two years ever.”

Jamie Sanyal wishes that this time was different for her kids. That they could go to school and do all the normal school and extracurricular things.

“There’s a cloud over that,” she said. “We’re worried, everything that we do we’re wondering if we’re making a mistake that could potentially get them very, very sick.”

Two weeks into this year now, Cooper Sanyal is feeling more at ease.

“Now, I think third grade is the best,” he said. “And I love being back at school.”