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Santa Rosa’s St. Rose Catholic School cancels classes in midst of COVID outbreak

St. Rose Catholic School in Santa Rosa has closed its campus at least through Wednesday because of a growing outbreak of coronavirus cases, Principal Kathleen Aymar informed parents in an email Sunday.

“We now have a legitimate COVID outbreak in 8th, 7th, 5th, 6th, 4th and 3rd grade classes,” Aymar wrote. “This has now become a serious issue with so many cases popping up in multiple classes and COVID is now affecting school staff, and our ability to hold classes with appropriate staffing.”

On Tuesday, the principal followed up with an email to The Press Democrat.

“As the positive cases began to uptick over the weekend involving students, their families, and my own staff, I felt it was prudent to close the school for three days to see if we could tamp down this apparent surge,” Aymar said. “Cases continue to rise, and families are opting to keep their children home as a precaution. We will continue to monitor the situation with the hopes of reopening soon.”

The Sonoma County Department of Health Services knows about the outbreak and is working with St. Rose staff to mitigate the situation, said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer.

This is the first pandemic-related campus closure in Sonoma County since Jan. 14, when the Gravenstein Union School District and REACH Independent Charter School in Sebastopol sent students home because of staffing shortages, according to a county Office of Education representative.

The county health team is aware of “about three dozen outbreaks” related to school settings at the moment, Mase said — meaning a cluster of at least three linked cases either at a single campus or while performing a school activity such as sports.

“With increased community transmission, we are seeing more outbreaks in schools and other congregate settings,” Mase said

The problem isn’t confined to Sonoma. About 20 Marin County schools are currently experiencing COVID outbreaks, as reported by the Marin Independent Journal.

Though at least 82% of the eligible Sonoma County population is fully vaccinated and hospitalizations remain stable, virus rates have been creeping steadily upward again here.

The county’s rolling seven-day average for new daily cases went up almost daily for two weeks in the most recent reporting period, from 16.3 cases per 100,000 people on April 20 to 24.7 cases per 100,000 on May 3. (There is generally a one-week lag in the data collection.) Test positivity numbers look similar, climbing from 5.4% on April 20 to 7.4% on May 3. Positivity was at a nine-month low of 2.1% in mid-March.

Mase said Tuesday that the current case rate in Sonoma County is about 25 new cases per 100,000 residents, while test positivity is 7.2%.

“There is widespread transmission, so you’ll likely see more outbreaks in congregate settings like schools, skilled nursing facilities, homeless shelters, jails,” she said. “The main message is we highly recommend masking in these settings. If anybody believes they had contact with someone who is positive, they should test within 3-5 days. You don’t need to quarantine. But you should test.”

St. Rose’s predicament escalated quickly over the past few days.

On Friday, the school texted parents about 10 positive cases among seventh and eight grade students, noting that masks would be required Monday for those grades. By Saturday evening, Monday classes had been canceled. By Sunday afternoon, as positive cases spread to younger children, that cancellation was extended.

“We have stayed the course this year and done everything we can to stay open,” Aymar wrote to parents. “We have tirelessly monitored and managed positive cases, required testing and masks, but this outbreak is different. This is a very large number of positive cases all at once, and it should give us all a moment to pause and make sure we are doing the right thing.”

The principal noted that all students will be required to provide proof of a negative PCR test before they can return to school, whenever that should occur. Kids who have tested positive for COVID in the past 90 days may submit a negative result from a rapid antigen test.

St. Rose elected not to pivot to online instruction during the closure. The school was preparing work packets for distribution Tuesday.

“We understand this is a huge inconvenience to all of us, but please understand, we have students and staff who are actually ill, suffering with mild to moderate symptoms,” Aymar wrote. “We have families with elderly patients at home, and we have staff with underlying health conditions.”

St. Rose, which opened downtown in 1931, was Santa Rosa’s first Catholic elementary school. Its campus, adjacent to Cardinal Newman High School in the Mark West/Larkfield area, was heavily damaged during the Tubbs fire in 2017 but was later renovated on the same site. The school is affiliated with St. Rose Church and the Santa Rosa Diocese.

Local coronavirus rates remain far below the height of the omicron surge in January, when new daily cases reached a staggering 256 per 100,000 residents. But with the highly transmissible BA.2 subvariant of omicron becoming prevalent, health officials are eyeing the threat of another wave just before the arrival of graduation parties and summer travel.

Mase expressed cautious optimism on that topic.

“There are different models, but one of the state models predicted the peak would come middle to end of May,” the health officer said. “We are all concerned in the Bay Area that case rates are going up. And I would continue to hope people have an abundance of caution in these congregant settings.”

There will be no enforced limitations or restrictions on graduation events, Mase said. Just the same set of advice she and other health officials have been offering for well over a year: mask up for indoor gatherings. Get vaccinated if you haven’t already. And get boosted at the appropriate interval.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with a quoted statement by Dr. Sundari Mase that clarifies her earlier comments and specifies that community transmission is increasing, including school outbreaks and other clusters in other congregate settings.

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