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The Stress Test 

Omicron challenges Humboldt schools' ongoing efforts to keep kids in classrooms

click to enlarge Jo Kuzelka conducts a music class at St. Bernard's High School, where students don't share stands and only play mask-compatible instruments.

Photo by Jonathan Webster

Jo Kuzelka conducts a music class at St. Bernard's High School, where students don't share stands and only play mask-compatible instruments.

Back in August, when Humboldt County schools returned from summer break for in-person instruction amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the Delta variant, concerns were pervasive. Parents worried whether their children would be safe in the classroom, while others questioned whether schools would act as virus incubators that hastened community spread. School administrators, meanwhile, worried how they would manage COVID protocols and testing regimens with too much already on their staffs' plates.

Some six months later, it's safe to say schools have largely pulled it off, returning students to in-person instruction without massive outbreaks of the virus. There have been hiccups pre-Omicron, sure. Back in November, the Southern Humboldt Unified School District closed its campuses several days before Thanksgiving break in the face of a COVID-19 outbreak that administrators said was linked to off-campus gatherings, and the Arcata High School football team similarly had to forfeit a playoff game and end its season early due to an outbreak. But those are the outliers, as the school year has largely gone smoothly — though exhaustingly — for Humboldt County's 30 school districts and more than 70 school sites. Using a variety of testing regimens, administrators have leaned hard on proven COVID-19 mitigation measures — masking, ventilation, distancing and sanitization — to keep kids in classrooms.

But now the highly contagious Omicron variant is surging. Believed to be three times more contagious than Delta, Omicron has pushed case rates across the county, state and country to points previously unthinkable, becoming the dominant strain of the virus circulating, prompting some parents and local residents to again ask, is it safe to have kids in classrooms?

Humboldt County's case numbers continue to spike — the county confirmed a record 853 cases the first week in January, then 1,113 in the second week — and officials have said they expect that to continue, estimating this surge will peak sometime next month. But at press conferences in recent weeks, county Health Officer Ian Hoffman has repeatedly maintained that not only are kids safe in classrooms but that they are likely safer there than out in the larger community.

"We will likely see even more cases over the coming weeks due to the nature of how this new variant spreads," Hoffman said. "As far as being safe in the schools, I do think it's still the safest place for kids to be: Everyone's masked, they've worked on ventilation and many schools do testing, and, certainly, we know the disruption virtual learning took on kids over the last couple of years."

With Omicron cases surging, the Journal reached out Jan. 7 to all local superintendents to ask about their testing programs and mitigation protocols. We heard back from about half of them, with many sounding overwhelmed as their existing systems were undergoing a massive stress test. In addition to the challenges of keeping COVID from spreading within school walls, Omicron is so prevalent in the community, it's presenting massive staffing challenges for districts, most of which are already thinly staffed and short on substitutes. Last week, schools in McKinleyville and the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District were forced to temporarily pivot to distance learning due to staffing shortages caused by COVID infections. Other districts have been hit hard, too, posing a growing concern for administrators.

"Hello," one area superintendent responded to the Journal's email questionnaire, "I am currently out with COVID myself, so am not feeling up to responding."

From the responses the Journal did receive, it's clear up to this stage in the pandemic, local schools have kept kids in classrooms to this point in the pandemic by leaning hard into what health officials say we should all be doing: masking, testing, distancing and vaccinating, while putting a premium on ventilation in indoor spaces. But this looks different across the county's 70-plus campuses.

For example, schools in the Mattole Unified and Maple Creek school districts took advantage of their warmer climates and smaller enrollment numbers to hold classes outdoors for much of the beginning of the school year, while Orick Elementary School spread students through its sprawling campus for maximum distancing. Other districts have shuffled lunch and other schedules to reduce the number of contacts each student has in a given day.

When it comes to testing, all districts that responded to the Journal's survey test students and staff in some capacity, though there's wide variation. Some districts test every student whose family opts in weekly or even twice weekly, while others only test unvaccinated teachers and do spot testing if a student is symptomatic and has a known exposure. Some districts rely solely on rapid antigen tests, while others use the more expensive and time consuming PCR tests to confirm positives or to conduct surveillance pool testing.

Most districts reported they feel their programs have been tremendously successful. Mattole Unified Superintendent Karen Ashmore said her district has had "no positive cases ever," while Maple Creek Superintendent Wendy Orlandi said she needed to knock on wood before telling the Journal her district has "not had a single positive COVID case with students or staff."

Other districts say they have identified positive cases on campus but have yet to confirm any instances of spread within the school, which falls in line with what health officials said at the beginning of the school year: They expected schools to identify infections contracted out in the community but felt instances of spread at school would be limited. That makes sense, as schools are controlled environments where mitigation measures — masking, distancing and the limiting of intermixing groups — can be strictly enforced to a degree they cannot in the greater community.

"The honesty of staff, students and families has been critical for identifying symptomatic individuals and potential exposures," said Luke Biesecker, superintendent of Arcata School District. "The diligent contact tracing conducted by our school staff has also been vital to ensuring families are aware of exposures and that we are following appropriate quarantine and modified quarantine guidance. Having almost all our staff fully vaccinated and everyone following [California Department of Public Health] guidance related to COVID testing, masking, distancing and quarantine seems to be very successful. It is hard to know for sure, but we don't believe we had any instances of school-related COVID-19 transmission prior to winter break."

Asked what had been effective in her district, Ferndale Unified Superintendent Beth Anderson was succinct.

"Following protocols," she wrote in an email to the Journal. "Masking, social distancing, staying home/getting tested when sick. Honest and clear communication from all staff, students and families to ensure quarantine and isolation can be implemented."

County Superintendent of Schools Michael Davies-Hughes, whose role is overseeing the Humboldt County Office of Education, which runs the county's community schools, said frequent communication with families has been essential, as have "increased vaccinations for our students and staff, and measures such as frequent symptomatic testing, masking and use of ventilation and air filtration systems."

While all the districts that responded to the Journal's inquiries reported feeling positive about their protocols and mitigation efforts to date, some conceded Omicron presents a formidable challenge due to the sheer volume of cases.

Biesecker said the "magnitude of the latest surge has been quite challenging," as his district has scaled up to offer twice-weekly testing for students and staff, while McKinleyville Union School Superintendent Heidi Moore-Guynup said it's been "demanding" keeping up with the daily volume of testing and Northern Humboldt Unified Superintendent Roger Macdonald said it's been "tremendously time consuming both during the day, after school and into the evenings" testing and doing the ensuing contact tracing and notifications. Freshwater School District Superintendent Si Talty responded apologetically after the Journal's requested target deadline, "I've actually been so swamped with testing students I have not had time to reply until now."

Talty's comment underscores a point several superintendents made in responding to the Journal. The limiting factor in the scale and scope in districts' testing programs isn't supplies or will, it's staffing.

Jeff Northern, superintendent of Fortuna Elementary School District, was blunt in saying that regular required testing of athletes, testing students who've been exposed and the required weekly testing of unvaccinated employees is overwhelming.

"Just this amount of testing is more than we can handle being as short staffed as we already are," he told the Journal.

And as Omicron continues to surge locally, that will inevitably mean more kids on campus with known exposures or symptoms, and consequently more testing, even as school staffing is stretched thin by infections. Fortunately, most superintendents reached by the Journal said they know what works and intend to double down in the face of the current surge, making sure indoor spaces are ventilated, everyone on campus is masked and distanced, and the mixing of groups is limited wherever possible.

"I strongly feel that adhering to all of our layered mitigation strategies at all times will keep us safe," said Ashmore.

Journal staff writer Iridian Casarez, news editor Thadeus Greenson and digital editor Kimberly Wear contributed to this report.

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