COVID-19 cases cloud students’ return to school in Sonoma County
On her children’s fifth day of school, Hayat Merouani received a message from Hidden Valley Elementary School that a student had tested positive for COVID-19.
Her son, Mohammed, in fifth grade, and her daughter, Maria, a second-grader, both attend the school. They awaited word on whether or not they were considered “close contacts” with the student who had tested positive, and tried not to worry.
“I was in shock,” Hayat Merouani said, adding that she hadn’t been too worried about the disease’s impact on her children when the school year began.
“To be honest with you, I wanted them to be at school,” she said. Last year, when she took off work to help facilitate her kids’ distance learning was “a waste of time.”
By Friday, she had not received any communication that either Mohammed or Maria were close contacts, and they went to school as usual. If either of her children were considered close contacts, “I should have known by now,” Hayat said Friday afternoon.
Her family’s experience navigating the new landscape of protocols and precautionary measures in schools is far from unique. Across Sonoma County, officials and families dealt with more than three dozen confirmed COVID cases in the first week of classes, immediately putting to the test measures designed to mitigate spread of the coronavirus on campus.
Those cases, in turn, triggered notices that went out to anyone thought to have been in close contact with the infected individuals. School officials haven’t said, but that wider group is likely to include hundreds of students.
Sonoma County’s epidemiology team on Saturday reported 38 cases of coronavirus recorded at 24 schools since the start of the school year. Of those, six were staff members and 32 were students.
Four of the cases recorded by the county Health Services Department were linked to school exposures, meaning on-site transmission occurred.
“It is hard to say yet whether these cases are cause for concern, since at this point we do not know the circumstances of the in-school transmission that was reported,” said Jamie Hansen, communications director for the Sonoma County Office of Education. “Also, being just a little over a week into the school year, there is still very little data to work with to understand if this was an anomaly or part of a larger trend.
“Initially, this information seems to reflect what has been seen around the state and nation when schools return: the majority of cases in schools are community-based, but there are some instances of in-school (transmission),” she said.
Santa Rosa City Schools by Friday had sent out 12 schoolwide notices advising families and staff about a COVID case on campus since the district kicked off its year on Aug. 17, according to Superintendent Anna Trunnell.
Trunnell said as far as she knew, the cases recorded so far were related to community contacts and not in-school exposures.
“(That) tells me that we have students and staff focused on keeping themselves safe and following their protocols so they can continue to remain in person,” Trunnell said.
Some quarantine protocols required by the California Department of Public Health have not changed from when students were able to return for hybrid learning during the final weeks of the year. Any sign of COVID symptoms, for example, means the student or staff member is required to stay home. A positive test also leads to mandatory quarantine.
A student or staff member can only return to campus once symptoms have subsided, including a fever without the use of fever-reducing medication, or if symptoms are attributed by a doctor to a separate condition.
Students quarantining at home are assigned work in a manner similar to pre-pandemic times: teachers send work home to them in paper format or digitally.
Kathryn Howell, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, said that teachers have already felt the added burden in the first week of trying to keep quarantined students engaged while they’re out of the classroom.
“I think it’s been a struggle,” she said. “It’s a workload thing. You can’t necessarily send the same work home that you would be presenting in class. You have to pre-plan supports and scaffolds for students. It is not comparable with distance learning.”
Other students can be assigned to a “modified quarantine” that allows them to stay in school, if certain conditions are met under the California Department of Public Health guidance.
The modified quarantine allows them to continue coming to school, while self- monitoring for symptoms.
If unvaccinated, students have to have been masked while exposed to the infectious person to be eligible for modified quarantine; if not, the exposed student will likely have to quarantine at home. They must also remain asymptomatic and undergo at least twice weekly testing during the 10-day quarantine period. They may not participate in extracurricular activities such as sports while quarantining.
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