Schools prepare for surge of omicron cases | January 7, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 7, 2022

Schools prepare for surge of omicron cases

Superintendent: 'It's going to be disruptive'

by Zoe Morgan

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 restarted 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 resumed 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."

Email Staff Writer Zoe Morgan at [email protected]


Posted by CoCo
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 4, 2022 at 2:41 pm

CoCo is a registered user.

I work in a local elementary school. The district is trying to mitigate the spread of covid and keep the schools open by offering on-site tests and take home tests (distributed today to students). But I would kindly ask parents to re-think the masks they are providing for their children. The kids are good about wearing them, but there are many who come to school in ill-fitting, adult-sized cloth masks. The science is pretty clear that cloth masks are not terribly effective against omicron. The schools have supplies of surgical masks that are sized for kids - if parents don't have access to them at home, tell your children to ask their teacher/office for a surgical mask. There are videos on TikTok/YouTube from nurses that show how to tie simple knots in the ear loops and adjust the surgical masks to get a more secure fit to the face. Or have the child wear the cloth mask over/under a surgical mask. The adult-sized masks often slip down below the nose on kids, and then they are just decorative, not functional. We need to work together to keep our schools open - although it does feel like an uphill battle - a quarter of the students in my classroom were not present today.

Posted by j teacher
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 4, 2022 at 2:51 pm

j teacher is a registered user.

Is your pie chart right? It suggests 89.9 percent of our cases in SCC are Delta, not Omicron.

Posted by No heat
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 4, 2022 at 3:44 pm

No heat is a registered user.

The pie chart is comes from Web Link which says


Which means that it's substantially unrelated to current conditions. If you want to get a sense of how prevalent Omicron is, take a look at Web Link which tracks RNA concentration in sewage, with the del 143-145 mutation being a marker for Omicron. This makes it absolutely clear that the bulk of local cases are due to Omicron.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 4, 2022 at 6:30 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Most overpaid public school teachers, their self-promoted and grossly overpaid administrators, and elected public school board members are of inferior intellectual and educational quality compared to those of us who slaved at (and actually Learned and Understood!!!!) really difficult subjects. to earn REAL college degrees. We work in far higher status jobs that require true intelligence and superior job performance and proficiency. not just "feel good" ignorant teacher mediocrity.
Are these educationally and educationally inferior "teachers", their "administrators", and their pathetic school board members really competent to protect our children. NO, NO, NO.
And do they have the financial resources to make their schools truly safe from Covid infection? Not only for daily testing, masking and 6 foot distancing but also for PROPER SCHOOL ROOM VENTILATION??? NO, NO, NO!
In a time of Covid, the whole public education system is shockingly incompetent and underfunded. But, hasn't it always been?

Posted by Morgan
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jan 4, 2022 at 7:51 pm

Morgan is a registered user.

A large number of Omicron cases are mild, especially for the vaccinated and those with boosters. Many of those people don't even bother to get tested, or rely on home testing. We have 6 people in our house, all of us have had it in the past month, only one of us got an official PCR test through the county. All of the others were home tests. Those don't show up on any data.
I wouldn't put too much faith in the accuracy of the numbers.

Posted by Local
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 4, 2022 at 10:21 pm

Local is a registered user.

Thank you to all PAUSD school teachers for teaching our kids. Mine were back in school today and our family really appreciates the teachers fantastic work. Many of us in tech/finance/university have had the luxury to WFH, but not the teachers so I really appreciate their dedication :-).

So many thanks from a local parent

Posted by Here SInce 1979
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 5, 2022 at 8:07 am

Here SInce 1979 is a registered user.

Sir, you must have been in a terrible mood yesterday. I suggest that you look at the demographics of the degrees held by teachers in PAUSD. Personally I have two masters, one in Organic Chemistry and in Educational Leadership. I worked at SRI as a consultant to the chemical industry, working on production/consumption, pricing trends, product viability studies, etc. Later in my life I found teaching to be fulfilling and I love the challenge of getting our students excited to learn.
I hope you feel better and not need to demolish others to make yourself feel better.

Posted by JHM
a resident of Los Altos
on Jan 6, 2022 at 12:12 pm

JHM is a registered user.

To Mr. Hitchens of Mountain View: I must acknowledge that my skepticism comes to the fore when ever anyone feels the need to put down others or professions by proclaiming his/her own incredible education, intelligence and superiority. I am not alone in feeling that the need to brag about such issues in reality often reveals the ego needs and basic insecurity of such persons. We have recently experienced a self proclaimed: “Very Stable Genius” in the White House to mixed reviews!
I will continue honoring teaching as a profession and the dedicated, innovative, adaptable, too often under appreciated men and women who are there for us.

Posted by ProfvilleResident
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 7, 2022 at 9:35 pm

ProfvilleResident is a registered user.

Pushing this until we hit a point where we can no longer staff schools is more than “disruptive.”

The real (and inhumane) toll behind that statement is that we’re willing to let this run until enough teachers are infected (many of whom will take the virus home to their vaccine-ineligible younger children or immunocompromised family members) and until we’ve run out of substitutes.

Also, if the district had the at-home kits on Sunday, why weren’t these made available for students to pick up from their campus on Monday? Sending tests home with kids on Tuesday/Wednesday after having already been at school all day seems like a missed opportunity for added mitigation.

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