When Angela Rodriguez decided to send her kids back to in-person school this fall, she knew it was inevitable that there would be COVID-19 cases on campus, she just didn’t expect it to happen on the first day of school.
Rodriguez got an email on Aug. 11 saying that a child had tested positive for COVID-19 at Vargas Elementary School in Mountain View, where her two children are students.
“We were in shock,” Rodriguez said. “My husband and I could not believe it.”
Local school districts have reported student and staff COVID-19 cases since school began earlier this month, although as of Aug. 20 there weren’t any known cases of the virus spreading among students on campus, officials in the Mountain View Whisman, Los Altos, Mountain View Los Altos Union High School and Palo Alto Unified school districts said.
“All of our cases have occurred outside of the school, and we know that because we’re doing contact tracing,” Mountain View Whisman Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said. “The students who are identified as close contacts have not tested positive.”
The state protocols for when someone tests positive are complex and dependent on a variety of factors, including a student’s vaccination status, mask use and symptoms. That has led to confusion and frustration among some parents, as they try to abide by the detailed requirements. School districts have at times hit snags as they try to implement the health rules, which have changed substantially since last school year.
In the past, whole classes generally had to quarantine when a student tested positive. This year, kids who come into close contact with a positive case can typically continue to attend school, regardless of vaccination status, so long as they don’t have any symptoms, meet testing requirements and everyone was wearing masks at the time of exposure. Unvaccinated students face an extra restriction of not being allowed to participate in extracurricular activities for seven to 10 days.
MVLA Associate Superintendent Leyla Benson, who is spearheading the district’s COVID case tracking efforts, said she supports the new guidance because it allows students to keep learning in-person.
“It’s worth the effort,” Benson said. “That being said, it is an incredible amount of tracking to identify the close contacts, identify their status, get the test results and check that they have tested in the cadence that’s required.”
The guidelines for positive cases aren’t the only thing that has changed this school year. There are no longer rules for socially distancing students in classrooms, so class sizes no longer have to be reduced.
While the state only requires that masks are worn indoors at schools, some districts are opting to require outdoor masking for grades K-8, including Mountain View Whisman, Los Altos and Palo Alto Unified, which rolled out an outdoor masking requirement today (Aug. 20).
Only students ages 12 and up are currently eligible to be vaccinated, leaving the vast majority of local elementary schoolers unvaccinated.
When Rodriguez got the Vargas exposure notification, she was particularly upset because her daughter told her that there was a student in class that day who had been coughing and sneezing. Privacy laws preclude districts from identifying which students test positive, but Rodriguez said the student who appeared sick didn’t show up for school on the following days.
“There needs to be accountability and responsibility as parents during this school year,” Rodriguez said, adding that she felt the district handled sending out the exposure notices well.
Thus far, Mountain View Whisman has reported six students and five staff members testing positive since July 1. MVLA has had two students test positive this school year, plus one staff member over the summer.
LASD hasn’t reported any student cases since school started Aug. 18, though the district only updates its online COVID-19 dashboard once a week. Two staff members tested positive before students returned to campus.
Palo Alto Unified’s dashboard hasn’t yet been updated this week, but Superintendent Don Austin said in a Thursday interview that his district has seen fewer than 10 cases.
“I’d say our opening has been (the) best case scenario so far,” Austin said. “It should be expected that we’re going to mirror our local case rates, so we’re going to have some cases.”
In one case, Palo Alto quarantined an entire special education class because not all of its students were able to wear masks. MVLA has had some students quarantine after taking part in an unmasked outdoor activity on campus with a student who tested positive.
“It’s a lot of tracking for the district to determine all these variables, as you can imagine,” Benson said.
In some cases, there have been kinks in rolling out the new exposure protocols. When MVLA first notified families about a positive case last week, the district told parents that all students needed to be tested twice and couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities.
However, the county guidelines state that vaccinated students only need to be tested once, five days after exposure, and are able to participate in extracurriculars if asymptomatic. Unvaccinated students do need two tests (one immediately and one on the fifth day) to be able to attend classes and may not participate in extracurriculars. The unvaccinated student and the person who tested positive also must both have been masked at the time of the encounter for the unvaccinated student to be allowed to attend classes.
According to Benson, district officials had only just been trained on the new guidelines when they sent out the exposure email, and the flowchart on the county’s website didn’t reflect the updated rules, leading to the miscommunication with parents.
The district also didn’t have a way for families to submit their COVID-19 test results to the district until this week.
Nancy Pannikkat is among the parents who received the exposure notice. Her son is a vaccinated senior at Los Altos High, Pannikkat said. Finding an available test proved to be a challenge. There weren't any slots open at El Camino Health, where the district directed parents, she said. Instead, she took her son to the county fairgrounds.
“It was a bit of a hassle to find an appointment,” Pannikkat said, adding that she understands the district is adapting to changing circumstances, but that she hopes they can add on-campus testing.
MVLA did just that this week, hiring outside company Inspire Diagnostics to offer onsite tests. Trained district staff, as well as employees from Inspire, will administer the swabs. According to Benson, the decision to offer testing on campus came after hearing from parents like Pannikkat who were having trouble securing appointments.
“Having the tests on site is going to be instrumental in assisting the families to meet the requirements,” Benson said.
Palo Alto Unified has already been providing tests to students who are close contacts of a positive case.
The Los Altos School District is looking to resume offering pool tests on campus, which it did last spring, district nurse Mary Fitzgerald said. Pool testing refers to testing a whole group of people at a time, typically a classroom in a school setting, by pooling their samples. If any individual sample is positive, the whole pool is supposed to come back positive, and then each person in the group can be individually tested.
Mountain View Whisman plans to begin pool testing students Sept. 6. The decision to offer testing comes after Mountain View Whisman parents similarly ran into issues finding testing appointments in the community.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple of days is that not every student and not every family has the ability to test on (the required timeline),” Rudolph said. “It’s just a challenge getting those, which forces people to go into a quarantine.”
on Aug 22, 2021 at 4:41 pm
on Aug 22, 2021 at 4:41 pm
Ms. Morgan - welcome to your new Ed reporting job for EM and at the Voice.
The MVWSD existing protocol on pandemic response - adopted 'way back' when I was a Trustee - required when in pandemic mode / all students be pre-screened for symptons BEFORE GOING TO CLASSROOMS. Further, the health person on-site was to sequester or ISOLATE any symptomatic student in the health office (or other appropriate room away from other students).
Reporter Morgan - has the MVWSD dropped this requirement from their pandemic protocal (which was voted on and adopted by the Board)?