San Diego Unified will stay closed indefinitely while vaccinations, testing scale up

San Diego Unified officials again held off on setting a potential date for reopening schools, because COVID-19 cases and deaths continue their relentless growth.

But progress is being made on two key efforts San Diego Unified needs to reopen — vaccinations and COVID-19 testing, officials said at a board meeting Tuesday.

Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician who is advising the district on reopening, said Tuesday he hopes all school staff will be able to get vaccinations in a few weeks and all willing school staff may be vaccinated by April.

San Diego Unified said early last month that it would release a new reopening timeline on Jan. 13, after canceling its original plans to open for in-person instruction this month.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Cindy Marten indicated the district will not open for in-person instruction anytime soon, without giving any potential future dates.

“Despite the progress that is being made and all of the best efforts of all of our employees, it’s important that we recognize that the virus continues to spread and it’s out of control in our communities,” Marten said.

“The fact that we’re losing 4,000 of our fellow Americans to this disease every day is shocking and something we must all continue to attend to. This is not the time to let up on our efforts to defeat this deadly virus.”

San Diego Unified and several other local school districts that have not reopened are not allowed to, according to new guidelines by Gov. Gavin Newsom that say schools cannot reopen for in-person instruction while their county has a COVID-19 rate above 28 cases per 100,000 residents.

San Diego County’s rate is currently 70 per 100,000 — and rising.

Meanwhile the COVID-19 surge is driving more San Diego County students who were learning in schools back to distance learning.

About 84 percent of all county public and private school students are learning exclusively online as of Monday. That’s up from 68 percent in early November before the surge began, according to the San Diego County Office of Education.

Many school districts have temporarily re-closed their schools, because they lack enough staff to safely operate schools due to COVID-19 quarantines and positive test results. Families also may be opting to keep their children home, even though their schools are open.

As school closures continue, many students are suffering with failing grades, depression and anxiety, inadequate internet and other challenges, experts and parents warn.

Vaccinations

Vaccinations for school staff working on-site will be crucial to reopen San Diego Unified, officials said.

“If there’s a possibility over the next six weeks we get all educators who would be on campus vaccinated, that will make a big difference in our ability to open up and stay open,” said San Diego Unified Board President Richard Barrera in an interview last month.

But the vaccine rollout has been slow nationwide and in San Diego County. Thousands of doses are waiting to be administered to those in the first phase of vaccine prioritization.

In California and San Diego County, that means healthcare workers and long-term care residents are getting vaccinations. San Diego County is in Phase 1A.

Phase 1A also includes school staff who work on-site with symptomatic staff or students, such as school nurses, health technicians and front office staff, Taras said.

As of Friday, 58,000 out of roughly 500,000 San Diego County residents who are eligible for Phase 1A had gotten immunized, according to county officials.

All other school staff will qualify during the first tier of the next phase, 1B, which now also includes people 65 and older, and employees at risk of exposure who work in food and agriculture and emergency services.

At least 1.1 million people in San Diego County will be eligible for Phase 1B, Taras said, not including people ages 65 and older.

A big gap in the nation’s vaccination strategy is that no COVID-19 vaccine has yet been approved for children under 16 years old.

That means it’s likely that children will not be vaccinated by the start of the next school year, Taras said.

Children will likely still be required to wear masks, and classrooms will still need to have reduced capacities of fewer than 25 or so students in a class to maintain social distancing, he said.

There likely will be parents who choose to keep their children home and learning online until kids can get vaccinated.

“Long-term planning should consider these things well into the next school year,” Taras said.

School testing

Experts and district officials say frequent, routine COVID-19 testing for students and staff can allow school systems to reopen safely even when community COVID-19 levels are high.

But school testing has yet to be funded or provided by the state, leading a few school districts, including San Diego Unified, to establish and fund their own COVID-19 testing programs.

San Diego Unified is in its second week of testing and so far has administered 175 tests to staff and students, said Susan Barndollar, the district’s program manager for nursing and wellness, at Tuesday’s meeting. The students are participants in the district’s current Phase One of reopening, which provides in-person support to a limited number of struggling students.

During the first week of the testing program in mid-December, the district provided testing at 10 schools.

At those schools, 39 percent of on-site staff got a COVID-19 test, while only 7 percent of on-site students did. All the tests came back negative.

The testing is voluntary and requires signing up in advance, which Barndollar acknowledges has caused “delays and issues” in getting people registered.

“Our goal is to increase student participation, and we’re supporting that at the site level,” Barndollar said.

The district’s COVID-19 testing program is free to any staff and students working or learning on-site. Eligible staff include teachers who are working with students in-person as part of the district’s Phase One, as well as food service employees, bus drivers and other staff not working from home, Barndollar said.

The district is introducing testing at 10 additional schools every week and expects to be offering testing at all schools by mid-May, Barndollar said. High schools and schools in neighborhoods heavily impacted by COVID-19 will get testing earlier than others.

Once testing is offered at a school site, the school will continue offering testing until the end of the school year on June 11, Barndollar said.




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