Back to school soon — what to do about COVID?

First grade teacher Lacie Wall welcomed students back to her classroom at Gault Elementary on Monday.
Inside Lacie Wall’s first grade classroom Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

California’s guidelines haven’t changed much from last spring — masking and vaccination remain highly recommended — though fears of increased infection have risen. In Santa Cruz County, just over 44% of youth aged 5 to 9 have received a COVID vaccine compared to about 68% of 10-to-14-year-olds. Among those aged 15 to 19, about 61% have received a vaccine. 

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Matching COVID response guidelines to rapidly changing infection patterns is a near-impossible task. Now, school officials have to do that again with students set to return in August.

As preparations for that return move forward, the plan is: status quo.

Santa Cruz County public K-12 schools won’t require masks for students, teachers or staff, but masking is still “strongly recommended.” Additionally, vaccinations for students and staff won’t be required, but staff who aren’t vaccinated will have to be tested weekly.

Those were the guidelines in place when school ended in the spring. On June 30, the California Department of Public Health released an update for the state’s K-12 schools for the upcoming academic year.

“If masking mandates were to be reinstituted at the state level, it would probably be because the entire population would be requested to do so as opposed to specifically for schools,” Dr. Cal Gordon, Santa Cruz County deputy health officer, told Lookout on Wednesday. “I think that the likelihood for going in that direction would be if these health care systems, in particular the hospitals, were overwhelmed.”

And that could happen, as infection rates continue to rise in the state and Los Angeles County considers reinstating face masks.

“We’re definitely on an upward tick,” said Gordon. “We don’t believe that we’re at the end of this. We’ve had a number of events, Fourth of July. … Now, with schools opening, we may see more.”

As the BA.5 Omicron strain takes over as the most common across the United States, experts say it’s also causing reinfections in some people as early as weeks after recovery from a prior case. Despite the rising numbers, California hasn’t made any changes to K-12 school mitigation measures since the state released guidelines last month.

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said the goal continues to be to keep students in school in person while also keeping them safe from infection.

“We’re hoping to get to a place where some of the mitigation systems are not are not needed anymore,” he said Wednesday. “But until then, we need to continue doing what we can to keep our communities safe.”

COVID-19 guidelines for the upcoming school year remain mostly unchanged

The updated state guidelines continue to underline that masking is highly recommended in schools — and will remain at the discretion of local districts and public health officers. And while the state isn’t requiring families to vaccinate their children, that too is highly recommended.

One change to the state’s guidelines affects how schools send exposure notifications to families. Rather than notifying individual students of an exposure, school officials can send schoolwide notices when the number of cases is elevated.

“We’ve yet to see what kind of reporting systems are going to be used here,” said Sabbah. “But that is the new guideline from [the California Department of Public Health].”

Sabbah emphasized that families continue to have easy, daily access to COVID-19 testing at several locations including Cabrillo College, the County Office of Education, the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District office, Pajaro Valley Unified School District office and at Salud Para La Gente.

He added that the County Office of Education is focused families getting in touch with their pediatricians to ensure children have all required immunizations.

“We are also trying to get the word out for parents to get their children’s immunizations up to date,” Sabbah said. “It has been a challenge that many students have not — not COVID-19 vaccinations, but they’ve not received their regular immunizations and those are a requirement to be able to enroll in school.”

While it’s not entirely clear why, he said some public health experts think some families fell behind on visits to pediatricians and as a result, fewer children have received immunizations. The state requires students to receive vaccinations for illnesses such as polio and chickenpox in order to enroll in school. A COVID vaccine is not yet required.

In Santa Cruz County, just over 44% of youth aged 5 to 9 have received a COVID vaccine compared to about 68% of 10-to-14-year-olds. Among those aged 15 to 19, about 61% have received the vaccine.