COVID testing was supposed to keep schools safe. What happened?
While the state and local health departments, and even many districts, maintain public dashboards of COVID cases, parents in some districts have no way of knowing if there’s an outbreak at their child’s school unless they’re contacted by contact tracers or school staff.
As California schools reopen, frequent COVID testing is meant to be a crucial tool in controlling virus outbreaks on campus. But so far, testing in many districts remains inconsistent and disorganized, leaving parents, teachers and administrators frustrated and doubtful of the tests’ effectiveness in keeping students safe.
“None of it makes any sense. They’re sending kids home with a little sniffle or cough, and it could be a week or more before they’re allowed to come back,” said Kristy Llewellyn, a parent of three children in Temecula Valley Unified in Riverside County. “The kids are already so far behind. This just can’t go on for the rest of the school year.”
Some districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, test all students and staff weekly. The district even publishes a dashboard showing positive test rates in different areas of the district.
But in other districts, the process has been spotty at best, and often relies on parents to find free testing sites and report positive results to their child’s school. Laboratories and clinics send positive test results to state and local public health agencies, but the results aren’t connected to specific schools because the student may have been infected anywhere, not necessarily at school, according to the state Department of Public Health.
So, while the state and local health departments, and even many districts, maintain public dashboards of COVID cases, parents in some districts have no way of knowing if there’s an outbreak at their child’s school unless they’re contacted by contact tracers or school staff.
The result is often chaotic, leaving communities and parents ill-informed on whether infections are increasing.
Dulce Fajardo, a mother of three in Oakland, said she’s frustrated with the testing, communication and quarantine procedures at her children’s school, a Spanish dual-immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified. COVID has hit her family hard, and she’s especially cautious about her children’s exposure to the virus. She and her husband would have enrolled their children in remote learning, but the district isn’t offering a dual-immersion option.
“I know people at my kids’ school, so I have a good idea what’s going on, but a lot of parents don’t,” Fajardo said. “It’s scary, how many people wouldn’t know if there’s an outbreak. … My worry is that there’s not enough information for parents to make good decisions.”
As part of school reopening guidelines, the California Department of Public Health and the Department of Education urged students and staff to undergo regular COVID tests, either through the school or at off-campus sites. More than $20 billion in state and federal funding is available for schools to conduct COVID tests and take other steps to reopen schools safely.
Tests are meant to be part of a multipronged effort to curb the impact of COVID on campus and keep students in school. An indoor mask mandate, funds for upgraded ventilation systems, strong encouragement that everyone over age 12 be vaccinated, and quarantine plans are also part of the state’s overall safety guidance.
The California Department of Education and Department of Public Health have provided guidelines for schools to keep students and staff safe during in-person learning. The guidelines cover testing, vaccinations, quarantine plans, ventilation, social distancing and cleaning. Here’s information related to testing guidelines:
California Safe Schools for All
California Covid-19 Testing Task Force: School Testing
California Department of Public Health Covid Testing Guidance
Updated testing guidance
In Riverside County, liaisons at every school campus are supposed to help oversee testing, reporting and other COVID protocols. Schools are supposed to report positive test results to the county public health agency, which conducts contact tracing.
“That’s the ideal. Does it always work? No,” said Michael Osur, assistant director of the Riverside County Department of Public Health. “Some schools are doing better at this than others. … We’re finding that it has to be a partnership between parents, schools and public health. Schools can’t do it alone. What’s good is that our goals are the same: to keep kids healthy and in school.”
In a letter last week 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. The site, in Parking Lot K, will be open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The letter also announced a pilot program aimed at providing free, weekly PCR testing at nearly every county school.
There are some advantages to keeping positive test results confidential at schools, said Preston Merchant, spokesperson for the San Mateo County Health Department. The county publishes a dashboard showing COVID cases broken down by age, but no data is linked to specific schools.
“If there are outbreaks, contact tracers need to work with school administrators, staff and student families in an environment of privacy and trust,” Merchant said. “We believe that not sharing data publicly about school outbreaks protects those relationships, encourages participation in contact tracing, and allows processes for testing, isolation and quarantine to be effective in preventing further exposure.”
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Shortage of COVID tests
School testing is further complicated when students are in “modified quarantine” — allowed to attend school if they’re asymptomatic even though they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive. Students in modified quarantine must be tested twice a week. As infection rates increase, more students are falling into that category, leaving some areas with a shortage of tests.
Students who participate in high-contact sports or other extracurricular activities must also undergo regular tests.
In Fresno County, public health authorities are concerned that so many students and staff need regular tests, particularly rapid tests, that there won’t be enough. They’re urging schools to obtain extra PCR tests from the state, which are more accurate but take longer to process.
“(Fresno County Department of Public Health) and the schools are very concerned about the shortage of testing,” said Dr. John Zweifler, a public health physician with the Fresno County Department of Public Health. “Because of the large increase in cases and in part due to increased demand related to school reopenings, rapid antigen tests are in shorter supply.”
Another hurdle is contact tracing. Students who test positive are supposed to provide names and contact information for everyone who’s been within 6 feet since the student started experiencing symptoms. But sometimes students have been so many places — soccer practice, friends’ houses, birthday parties — that they don’t remember who they’ve been around, or know their full names or contact information. Some schools and public health departments have staff dedicated to helping with contact tracing, but in some areas the burden falls on parents.
Some districts, such as Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified, have a “rapid response team” that will show up to a school within 30 minutes of someone showing COVID symptoms to administer testing, conduct contact tracing and make sure protocols are being followed.
When someone tests positive, they are immediately isolated in one of the school’s “isolation spaces,” and the response team will determine whom they might have come into close contact with in the classroom. If the response team determines someone came into close contact with someone who tested positive, they will be isolated too, West Contra Costa’s disaster preparedness and safety consultant, Michael Booker, told the school board at an Aug. 25 meeting.
Anyone with symptoms is required to either get tested at the school or by their health care provider, in line with state guidelines, Booker said.
West Contra Costa’s contact tracing efforts during the first week of school were inconsistent, parents and teachers said. Angela Silver-Lima, a parent at Richmond’s Mira Vista Elementary, said at the board meeting that notifications and testing at the school appear to be haphazard.
“Why do we have stricter protocols in place for lice than we do for COVID?” Silver-Lima said.
Marissa Glidden, president of the district’s teachers union, said at the meeting that in several instances, teachers were not notified of potential exposures. One teacher didn’t find out she had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID until that person texted her five days later, Glidden said.
“This is simply unacceptable. Our educators deserve transparency at their workplace and expect the district to do all they can to keep everyone safe,” Glidden said. On Tuesday, the United Teachers of Richmond filed a complaint with Cal-OSHA against the district for failing to meet the state’s COVID Emergency Temporary Standards, which outline COVID safety requirements in workplaces.
Surging infection rates
But perhaps no area in California is experiencing more COVID upheaval than the rural northern end of the state. Shasta County, for example, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, and COVID rates have surged to their highest levels since the pandemic began. Schools are already closing due to COVID outbreaks and staffing shortages.
Because schools in the region were open for in-person learning most of last year, district administrators thought this year would hold few surprises. They were wrong.
“None of us expected what happened within the first week of school,” said Heather Armelino, superintendent of Enterprise Elementary School District in Redding, the county’s largest school district. “After 11 days of school, we had 126 positive cases and 1,300 students and staff in quarantine, which is about one-third of our district population. That was more cases than we had in total last school year.”
As a result, the district decided to ease the burden on parents and conduct its own COVID testing on students. But with so many students in “modified quarantine” and needing two tests a week, the task was daunting.
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“Within a week of school starting, we were completely overwhelmed by the volume of testing needed for students,” she said, noting that tests might have been delayed and school staff struggled to keep up. “Although we have the option to send students home to quarantine for the 10 days, we have prioritized keeping students in class, and we didn’t want to give up on that goal.”
All of this has affected staffing. With only a third of teachers fully vaccinated, the district is struggling to find substitutes for teachers who are ill or in quarantine at home. It’s offering incentives for teachers to get vaccinated and boosting pay for substitutes, but so far that hasn’t been enough. Two schools in the county have closed — Castle Rock Elementary and Anderson Middle — and many more are on the brink, said county superintendent Judy Flores. So many students and teachers have been exposed that “modified quarantine” might no longer possible at some campuses, she said.
“I hear that we have not reached the peak of this outbreak in our county,” she said. “I’m not sure how much longer some of our schools can stay open.”
Llewellyn, the parent from Temecula Valley, sees the testing protocol in her children’s school as untenable. Children often contract colds and allergies, especially in the fall, and sending them home until parents can show proof of a negative COVID test is burdensome and inefficient, she said. All three of her children tested positive for COVID over the summer, and their symptoms were milder than a common cold, she said.
“Wash your hands, sanitize, stay home if you’re sick — that’s all fine, that makes sense,” she said. “But this constant testing and being sent home, it’s frustrating for a lot of parents. It’s tough.”
EdSource reporter Ali Tadayon also contributed to this story.