While student absences are problematic, schools also are hurt by big numbers of teachers and other staff calling in sick because they’ve got the virus or been exposed to it.
The cascading problems have left educators scrambling to fill teaching vacancies and distribute test kits to families — all while trying to keep school as normal as possible.
Depending on the district and the school, administrators have shuffled teaching personnel, combined classes, added lunch periods and suspended small intervention groups aimed at helping students with topics like reading.
The surge also is affecting education, as distractions mount and teaching resources dwindle. Some parents and teachers even are calling for a return to online learning, even if temporary, though others say such a move would be a major setback.
Meanwhile, some parents complain that schools aren’t communicating with them in a timely fashion, particularly following virus exposures that happen on campus. Parents also question the accuracy of district-written online COVID information dashboards, noting that the case numbers often don’t match up to the number of school absences.
On Wednesday, Saddleback Valley Unified School District took down its COVID-19 dashboard, saying so many students and staff are out ill that officials don’t want to share “information that we know is not correct.”
Calling in sick
Absenteeism — among students and teachers alike — gives some data to measure the crisis.
At the Magnolia School District, home to nine elementary schools in Anaheim and Stanton, 12% to 18 % of students and staff have been out since school opened Jan. 3. At one point, a teacher at Walt Disney Elementary found herself with only four students in class, said Superintendent Frank Donavan.
“It’s unbelievable,” Donavan said. “I think it’s even worse than the news is portraying it.”
Another stark example came from the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach. Prior to the holiday break, the district reported three COVID-19 cases among 7,500 students, said School Board President Gina Clayton-Tarvin. On the first day back, Jan. 3, the number had jumped to 144 cases, with some 1,000 kids absent.
At Capistrano Unified, the county’s largest district with approximately 42,000 students and 5,000 staff, spokesman Ryan Burris said attendance had dropped to 86% of normal during the first three days after the break. And at Santa Ana Unified, the county’s second biggest district, attendance post break started at 90% and fell to as low as 83% by the end of the week, according to spokesman Fermin Leal. (Typically, Leal added, attendance in Santa Ana Unified runs about 96%.)
Attendance is off for teachers, too. Leal said 320 of the district’s roughly 3,000 teachers called in sick because they either had the virus, needed to quarantine or care for someone with COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Carol Hansen found herself teaching social studies at Mesa View Middle School.
In normal times that would be unusual; Hansen is a superintendent, not a full-time teacher, at the Ocean View School District. But this week, with teachers absent, often en masse, and substitutes in short supply, many of the county’s 28 K-12 school districts are asking administrators, counselors and others to take over classes.
“During this recent COVID-19 surge, we have about 50 teachers out each day and sometimes up to half of those we are unable to fill with regular substitute teachers,” Hansen said.
“I am very proud of our principals and district office administrators, such as coordinators and curriculum specialists, who often take on teaching duties to ensure classes are covered and students have supervision.”
But employees across all departments are calling in sick, meaning that transferring employees from one department to another can create a ripple effect.
“We’re just trying to plug holes as they happen,” said Leal, of Santa Ana Unified. “One hole opens up and we plug it. And then another hole opens up.”
The absences are affecting campuses in a variety of ways.
At the Magnolia School District, for example, administrators have temporarily suspended small group intervention classes — the kind that bring students together to focus on math, reading and English language development.
Several districts also have added more lunch periods, partly because there aren’t enough cafeteria workers but also because fewer kids in a lunch room at any one time means less viral exposure. At Ocean View, administrators also have combined classes due to teacher shortages or smaller rooms.
Are kids learning?
“It’s very chaotic,” said Shayna Lathus, a sixth-grade science teacher at Carr Intermediate in Santa Ana who herself had to quarantine for a few days.
Her students, she said, are struggling to keep up.
“They’re in survival mode. They’re in trauma mode. Nobody can learn under those circumstances.
“They’re learning,” Lathus added, “Just not necessarily things we will test them on.”
Donavan, the Magnolia district superintendent, said students are continuing to learn but doing so while under extreme stress.
“There’s a lot of trauma,” he said. “A lot of people have lost someone, or been very sick. And these are elementary age children.”
Santa Ana Unified spokesman Leal emphasized that students and teachers on campus generally are healthy, and that everybody on all sides are trying hard under difficult conditions. But, he added, the current situation isn’t ideal.
“We’re getting by,” he said. “Obviously, that’s not the best way to handle education, to just get by.”
When asked if kids are learning much, Ocean View trustee Clayton-Tarvin turned to her 9-year-old son, Maximilian Tarvin.
“Yes,” the fourth grader said quickly, before adding: “There’s a lot of kids missing.”
Back to online?
As the omicron variant continues its rapid spread, a debate is growing on social media over the viability of a temporary return to online instruction. In places as diverse as Indiana, Texas and Ohio, some schools or classes have gone back to remote instruction.
Closer to home, in the La Cañada Flintridge area, when post-break coronavirus screenings found a 10% positive rate the district simply delayed re-opening. And in the Inland Empire, absences prompted the closure of some classes at Eastvale Elementary and one at Reagan Elementary.
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Some parents, anxious about their children’s health and the health of other family members, say it makes sense to go remote for a while. Others resist that idea. As one parent wrote on a community forum: “A lot of us would like school to retain any sense of normalcy possible.”
For now, state education officials say they want children in schools. And with school funding tied to student enrollment, any return to remote learning would require new legislation or an order from the governor.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic continues, many parents are demanding more transparency from school officials. They want to see online dashboards with accurate and up-to-date information on the number of COVID-19 related cases. And they want prompt notifications from schools when their children have been exposed to the virus.
That’s not currently happening, many have complained.
“It’s not transparent at all,” said Ruby Lin, a parent in the Irvine Unified School District and administrator for a Facebook page with local parents.
Many online district dashboards do not seem to reflect the number of students who are out due to COVID-19. Some districts, like Capistrano Unified, specify that they are only reporting cases of students and staff members “presumed to be infectious while on a school campus.
Others are less clear on what they’re including. Either way, their numbers don’t even come close to matching up with the number of students absent.
Several educators said most students who test positive are getting infected off campus. “We’re seeing very little classroom exposure. And very little illness spread in the school,” said Clayton-Tarvin, the Ocean View trustee and a 25-year teacher in Cerritos.
Others worry about delays between the time a student is exposed to the virus and the time parents are told about it.
On Jan. 7, Sujin Kim, a parent with two children in Irvine schools, got a letter that her oldest daughter was exposed to 19 positive cases — four days after the exposures took place.
“I have no confidence the school is looking after the kids or teachers. I feel it’s up to us, the parents, to decide,” Kim said.
Annie Brown, a spokeswoman for Irvine Unified, said most letters are sent to families within 24 hours. And the district’s COVID dashboard is updated daily. (Some districts update theirs weekly.)
As the coronavirus has evolved, so have recommendations and mandates from the state. And those changes have posed their own challenges.
“What people were told last week is different than this week. That’s been our biggest challenge, reacting to the ever changing direction,” said Martha McNicholas, president of the Capistrano Unified School Board.
Late Wednesday, the California Department of Public Health released updated guidance for K-12 schools that, among other things, changes how schools conduct contact tracing. Schools will no longer have to identify individuals who have been in contact with an infected student; they will instead be asked to notify an entire class or team about that exposure.
“Identifying an individual contact is very time and human resource intense, as one needs to try to figure out who was within 6 feet of a case for at least 15 minutes,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, Orange County Deputy Health Officer, wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “The process involves asking a lot of questions and trying to get answers. With lots of cases and given how quickly omicron is spreading, this is challenging unless you have lots of people working on it.”
Another change this week: On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that temporarily eases rules for hiring substitute teachers.
Mike Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, said many other changes lie ahead.
“We’re transitioning into an endemic. This isn’t going away,” he said.
“We have to manage parent, student and staff expectations on moving into an endemic — normalizing vaccines, Covid testing, so that we can get back into the business of schools.”