The line of teachers and staff waiting to get tested at the Palo Alto Unified School District office on Monday morning was long, stretching in front of the building and around the corner. Parents and students stood in similarly lengthy lines at Cubberley Community Center, with one man having the foresight to bring a lawn chair.
School is restarting this week after the holiday break, and administrators are facing the prospect of trying to keep campuses open as case counts seem sure to rise due to the highly transmissible omicron variant.
Superintendent Don Austin said the district is going to do everything in its power to minimize the spread of the virus in schools, including providing Monday's testing to staff and students, but recognized that a spike in cases is inevitable.
"What's pretty predictable is we're going to have large numbers (of cases)," Austin said. "Anyone who's going to pretend that that's not the case is just lying."
The district tested 508 teachers and staff at the district office on Monday, Austin said. Final numbers for the community testing clinic at Cubberley weren't available by the Weekly's deadline.
Classes are scheduled to resume on Tuesday, Jan. 4, for elementary schoolers and the following day for middle and high school students.
Tod Ford and his two children were among those standing in line at Cubberley on Monday. The family decided to get tested for COVID-19 after traveling to Lake Tahoe over the holiday break. Ford said he expects the omicron variant will cause disruptions in the coming weeks, but praised the school district for offering widespread testing, saying he felt they were making the best of a bad situation.
Ford's oldest child, Tai, is a sixth grader at Fletcher Middle School and has received two vaccine doses. Tai said they weren't particularly concerned about returning to school, though they recognized that some students would likely end up testing positive.
"I'm going to assume that there's going to be cases and that I will have exposures," Tai said.
That is the reality that many students and staff members are now facing as COVID-19 cases reach an all-time high across the country.
Pre-omicron, Palo Alto Unified saw relatively few cases among students and staff. Most weeks during the fall semester, case counts were in the single digits, with at most 11 students testing positive in a single seven-day period.
Only one special education classroom has been shut down this school year due to COVID-19 cases, Austin said. That's likely to change soon, with Austin predicting that classes will have to be closed in the coming weeks. If things get worse, full schools could shutter, he said.
Palo Alto Unified plans to limit closures as much as possible. Students impacted by closures will switch to online learning, Austin said.
A closure could happen for two reasons: at the state or county's behest due to high case numbers or because staff absences make it impossible to operate classes. The second, Austin said, appears more likely.
"I think the state and county are really going to try their best not to close schools, but there could be a day when we just can't staff them," Austin said.
Local schools, like many industries nationwide, have been struggling with staffing shortages in recent months. Finding substitute teachers has been particularly difficult, and the need may be greater as more teachers have to quarantine.
Beyond the classroom, competitive team sports are likely to face particular hurdles, Austin warned, because both teams have to be able to play for a game to occur.
"I think it's going to be massively disruptive to high school athletics," Austin said. "I'll be shocked if we make it through the seasons."
Austin raised concerns about what he characterized as a lack of guidance from Santa Clara County on how schools should respond to the omicron variant, including questions about what the school closure metrics will be.
"The county has been oddly quiet for about a month," Austin said, adding that it feels like the beginning of the pandemic, when school officials were scrambling for answers.
"None of us are health experts. We're just being told 'keep schools open,'" Austin said. "We can't answer all the questions that people have — it's just not possible."
In response to questions from this news organization, Santa Clara County's COVID-19 media relations team said in a statement that the county is aligned with the state's safety guidance for schools.
"Through the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the county hosts regular COVID-19 meetings with local districts, proactively communicates anytime the state of California provides new guidance, and reaches out as other relevant information becomes available," the county said. "Additionally, the Santa Clara County Office of Education is accessible whenever superintendents or schools require additional support."
Trying to stop the spread
As classes resume, Austin said the district has a number of steps in place to minimize COVID-19 transmission, including offering testing on each campus once a week and daily at Cubberley Community Center, which is open to the broader community.
The state also is distributing at-home COVID-19 tests for schools to hand out to students. Those were sent to the county Office of Education, Austin said. District staff picked them up on Sunday.
The district also has previously hosted vaccination clinics and intends to continue to enforce masking requirements, Austin said. Administrators had previously considered relaxing outdoor mask mandates in mid-January, but Austin said that is now off the table. The district currently requires masks outdoors for elementary and middle schoolers, while it's optional at the high school level. Bringing volunteers back to campus also is being delayed, Austin said.
As Barron Park Elementary School teacher Sylvia Sanders waited outside the district office for a COVID-19 test on Monday, she told the Weekly that she feels relatively safe heading back to school, although she knows some other teachers are more concerned. Sanders said she wants to keep things as normal as possible for the fourth- and fifth-grade students she teaches.
"They've been really good about keeping their masks on," Sanders said. "They've been happy to be at school."
Austin said he is meeting with the teacher and staff unions each day and will continue to have meetings each afternoon when classes restart. The district also is sending emails to parents updating them about the situation and is considering hosting a webinar, Austin said. He cautioned that the situation is in flux and information may become out of date quickly.
"It's going to be fast, and it's going to be disruptive," Austin said. "I do want to manage expectations. This might not be good for a while."