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Soaring Sonoma County student absences increase strain on schools struggling amid COVID-19 surge

When Sierra Bradley walked into her fourth-grade classroom this week at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, she couldn’t count on more than half of her students being present.

Of 20 students enrolled in her class, only 10 or fewer were there during the start of the second week back after winter break ended.

“Every day, I’m not sure if I will be able to teach my lesson plans that I’ve come up with, because there’s not enough students to teach them to,” said the teacher of 17 years. “Instruction is not happening the way it usually does.”

Bradley is one of thousands of educators across Sonoma County dealing with a sharp uptick in student absences ― dramatically up even from earlier periods of the pandemic as a result of the rising wave of omicron cases.

The fallout has complicated, if not undermined, school efforts to proceed with consistent in-person instruction as the third year of the pandemic looms and amid the first full academic year back in classrooms.

While quarantine and isolation have been part of the picture in schools throughout this year, the omicron-fueled surge of December and January is raising the hurdles schools face to serve students who can’t be there in person.

Several of Sonoma County’s large school districts have reported soaring levels of students out in the first days following winter break.

Petaluma City Schools has logged an average 15% rate absence rate among its students since the break ― about 10 percentage points higher than normal, officials said in a school board meeting Tuesday night.

Windsor Unified School District reported 20.9% of students absent Monday, a rate “very high” compared to pre-winter break numbers, according to a district spokesperson.

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, saw 2,491 students absent on Monday, or about 16.4% of its students. The typical rate is closer to 10%, district staff said.

Superintendent Anna Trunnell noted that student absences mean more than missing instructional time.

“They also miss school meals and important services such as counseling,” she said. “In addition, with so many absences, we are having to make decisions about canceling extracurricular activities, such as sporting events, which impacts our students as well.”

The escalation in student absences coincides with higher numbers of staff absences, in a year already challenged by shortages of workers ranging from bus drivers to substitute teachers.

The strain is prompting some parents, administrators and union officials to ask the nagging question: At what point do staffing gaps and student absences merit the closure of classrooms and a return to remote learning?

County officials, though, including Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington, have repeatedly pointed to a change in state law from the last school year to this one, which means schools no longer have the authority to decide for themselves whether or not to close classrooms temporarily. Instead, they said, that discretion lies with public health authorities.

In a COVID briefing Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Sundari Mase, county health officer, listed some of the criteria that the county’s public health division monitors to determine the safety and capacity of a school to stay open. That includes the number of students absent, she said, and the number of cases affecting a school.

Both Mase and Casey D’Angelo, the Sonoma County Office of Education’s COVID coordinator, said they were not aware of any classroom or school that was nearing a level of consideration for closure. At the same time, they said no set threshold exists to make that call, describing each instance as being considered on a case-by-case basis.

“I guess the hard thing about schools really is that we understand what the negative consequences of closing schools are,” Mase said, acknowledging the learning loss that clouded the year-plus that local students were out of classrooms. “And that includes … the disparities in access to learning for different populations and different groups. So we’re very motivated to keep schools open.”

In addition to mandated vaccines for teachers and school staff and strict adherence to mask wearing, schools have ramped up testing efforts as students and staff returned to the classroom.

Santa Rosa distributed nearly 13,000 rapid antigen tests to students on Jan. 7, which families were asked to use as soon as possible. On Monday, the district said it was still processing the number of COVID cases identified by those tests.

In the first week back, however, through Jan. 7, the district confirmed 73 cases among its students, according to its online COVID-19 dashboard. Among staff, seven cases were identified.

Windsor Unified School District’s COVID dashboard listed 155 student cases identified in that week. Before that, the highest number of weekly cases was 16, since the week of Sept. 13.

The Press Democrat also sought a countywide snapshot Wednesday, of the level of COVID infection among students and staff since the new term began on Jan. 3. A backlog in reporting from the Sonoma County Public Health schools team, though, clouded a clearer immediate picture of those cases.

The county’s school data dashboard Wednesday morning showed just eight COVID cases among students identified during the week of Dec. 2, and four among school staff. Later, the dashboard was updated to reflect 43 student cases and six staff cases ― still far below what school district are showing from the same time period.

Officials attributed the delay in reporting to an overwhelming amount of cases being reported and processed throughout the week.

“We know that there’s more,” said Kathryn Pack, health program manager for the county’s epidemiology team, in the briefing. The county was taking steps to reduce lag time in updating the data, she said.

But COVID case numbers also only tell part of the story of the impact to schools. Staff and students also have to miss days while quarantining at home after exposures, increasing the number of people absent from campuses throughout each week.

Recent changes in the California Department of Public Health’s quarantine and isolation guidance have contributed to more staff being out, said Pete Stefanisko, president of the Windsor District Educators Association.

The new guidelines require any unvaccinated staff member or any employee who is eligible for a booster shot but hasn’t received one to quarantine for five days after an exposure. They must test on the fifth day after exposure, and can return if they are asymptomatic and test negative. Anyone who chooses not to test or is unable to may return after 10 days, as long as they have no symptoms or their symptoms have resolved.

Isolation guidelines also changed for both staff and students: Now, anyone who tests positive must isolate for at least five days, regardless of vaccination status or whether they have symptoms. A negative test taken after the fifth day is required to return, as is resolution of any symptoms, such as a fever.

Previously, staff who were exposed but were asymptomatic and fully vaccinated could return to the classroom more quickly, Stefanisko said.

Teachers who remain at schools, then, are dealing with additional demands, both to cover for their absent colleagues during their prep periods and to adjust their lesson plans as some students return from quarantine or isolation, and others enter it.

“I’ve got this social studies lesson that I want to start teaching, and I put it on my board in the morning and I see who’s there,” Bradley said. “If it’s not enough kids, then I’m scrambling to find something else to do that’s not as rigorous as what I would be doing with the rest of the class (present).”

Still, she said, the picture isn’t entirely bleak for the students who do show up. They receive more of her individual time and attention, and she also gets to know them better.

“There’s a very different tone and feeling in the classroom when it’s just a few kids,” she said.

Parents who give notice about their child’s situation help teachers such as Bradley plan ahead. Some, she said, have reached out to let her know they are voluntarily keeping their children home for the first two weeks or so, because they fear they will be exposed at school.

But Bradley and her colleagues also can’t look very far into the future with much certainty. She doesn’t know how long this level of absences might continue to disrupt her classroom.

“I just have to assume that its going to calm down,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to correct the number of years Sierra Bradley has been a teacher and a reference to Casey D’Angelo, the Sonoma County Office of Education’s COVID coordinator.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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