By Ben Brekke, Staff Writer
// Between dozens of students missing from classrooms and kids returning from quarantine just to find a stack of work waiting on their desks, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 shifted students’ and staff’s school experiences drastically. With cases continuing to climb, many Acalanes High School community members question what the school will do to slow the spread and keep them safe.
The Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) Governing Board met on Jan. 12 to discuss and inform the public about COVID-19 cases within the district and the Board’s new policies regarding the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. The Board confirmed that roughly six to seven percent of AUHSD students are absent with COVID-19, but noted that there could be other unreported cases.
The Board began by reestablishing the current mask mandate that requires all students to wear masks when indoors, with few exceptions for sports and medical conditions. They also strongly encouraged outdoor masking.
“We started encouraging outdoor masking, and the teachers reported to me that they are seeing probably about 25 percent more outdoor masking. We know that the virus isn’t transmitted as well outdoors, but we also know that our students can be really bundled up close together,” AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson said at the meeting.
Along with their reinforcement of mask requirements, Nickerson announced that schools will now be distributing N95 and KN95 masks, along with the already-available surgical masks, to all staff and students.
The Board also clarified the standard isolation and quarantine protocols for students and teachers. On Dec. 30, the California Department of Public Health shortened the original ten-day quarantine to five days for those who tested positive for the virus.
“Now, if you test negative on day five [of quarantine], you can go back to work or back to school on day six, and that’s if you don’t have a fever,” Nickerson said. “[Students that recovered from COVID-19] must keep masking both indoors and outdoors… [and] are not allowed to participate in sports… for another five days.”
While students now quarantine for fewer days, staying caught up with schoolwork can still be a challenge for them. To help with this, the Board met with teachers to discuss methods to better support quarantined students.
“We had our teachers last week spend an hour sharing ideas of what types of things they could post, whether it’s videos they created last year of mini-lectures, whether it’s different resources on the web that will support their learning. They are trying to increase the postings on Canvas to support the students who are not there,” Nickerson said.
The isolation policy for AUHSD staff is slightly different from the policy for students. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health stated that with no staff shortages, the isolation policy for staff is the same five-day period that all students follow. However, if there are staff shortages, the isolation period shortens slightly. AUHSD schools are currently experiencing staff shortages, with around 56 staff members, six of whom are coaches, having tested positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 1 and eight who are at home due to childcare.
“If you have a staff shortage, which we have, then you are not required to stay home from work if you have a negative test, quarantine for three to five days, you wear a well-fitting mask, and you continue to have no symptoms,” Nickerson said.
Despite the shortened quarantine periods, noticeable numbers of students and staff are missing around campus. With so many absences, many students question a potential return to distance or hybrid learning. However, this outcome is no longer an option as California law no longer permits this under California Assembly Bill 10.
“The California law has changed since last year. Full closure or a complete shift to distance or hybrid learning, like we did last year and the year before that, is no longer an option partly because the governor’s office and the legislature were not happy with how a lot of districts operated last year and staying on distance learning much longer than public health officials thought was needed,” Nickerson said.
With no options to go back to online or hybrid learning aside from moving fully remote through AUHSD’s Acalanes Center for Independent Study, which currently has 15 students, COVID-19 worries many students who cannot expose themselves to the virus. Student Board Representative for Las Lomas High School and senior Melina Rafferty expressed her concerns at the meeting.
“I’m currently unable to attend school for the next couple weeks because my mom is immunocompromised, my aunt has cancer, and my grandpa has Parkinson’s,” Rafferty said. “I understand that the risk of transmission on campus with masks is low but it’s not zero. For those who don’t feel comfortable attending in-person class right now, it is very hard to stay caught up as we are missing all of our lessons and lectures.”
While some students need to stay out of school for health reasons, others prefer to stay on campus for academic purposes.
“Keeping up with assignments on Canvas isn’t very effective. You can’t learn that much from just modules on Canvas. Right now, having to learn online will just get you behind on your work,” sophomore Evan Sverak said
The Board faces a challenge going forward as they attempt to simultaneously support those who would like to continue to learn in person and those who do not feel safe in school. For now, the Board recommends that students at home communicate with their teachers.
“[What the Board recommends] is close discussions with your counselor and emailing teachers about the situation, telling them that you are going to have to be out until the surge is down and there’s less contagion on campus,” AUHSD Associate Superintendent Amy McNamara said. “It’s about good communication.”