California students return to the classroom amid rising COVID-19 case rates

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Students across California returned to in-person learning after the holidays on Monday amid rising case rates across the state, making good on a commitment made by state leaders to keep classrooms open even with the threat of another COVID-19 surge.

School districts across the state opened their classroom doors on Monday as the state is tracking a rise in COVID-19 cases. As of Monday, the state was averaging about 15,800 cases per day and a positivity rate of 15.9% – the highest it's been since January 2021.

Ahead of the holidays, California officials emphasized a commitment to keeping schools open and kids in the classroom. This was a change from last winter when most California students attended school remotely during the state’s winter surge.

In a joint statement released at the end of December, Gov. Gavin Newsom and several education associations and organizations announced a commitment to keep schools open.

“Across California, school communities – students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators and board members together – have worked tirelessly to keep schools both safe and in-person,” officials said in a statement. “California schools have been open because of, not despite of, our priority on safety. As we approach the new year, we reaffirm our shared commitment to one another, to our parents and to our students: to keep each other safe and to keep our classrooms open.”

In addition to keeping schools open, Newsom also committed to providing about 6 million at-home tests for each California student to be tested at least once before returning to the classroom. During a news conference Dec. 22, the governor emphasized a commitment to keeping kids in the classroom, calling it the state’s “most important agenda.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about how many of these test kits were already sent out to students across the state.

About 50 out of 80 Los Angeles County school districts returned to the classroom on Monday, with others expected to return at the start of next week, the Los Angeles Times reported. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the nation, is set to return Jan. 11 and announced Monday that it would require all students and staff to be tested before returning to the classroom next week.

To keep classrooms safe for teachers and students, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week that school employees should wear higher grade masks, like surgical masks, N95s and KN95s, and schools should increase testing capacity.

The public health department also announced last week that students will be required to wear masks outdoors “in crowded spaces where physical distancing is not feasible.”

During a news briefing on Dec. 30, Ferrer also noted that unlike the fall, where the county averaged less than a dozen outbreaks across 3,000 schools, this return to the classroom will likely be accompanied by an increase in case rates.

“We did really really well at schools in the fall … but that will not be the case as we come back because we do in fact have the omicron variant circulating much more widely,” Ferrer said. “We already know that it is leading to more outbreaks even over the break amongst school sports teams.”

School districts in the Bay Area also reopened classroom doors to students on Monday, and officials said they are confident they can manage the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom due to a high vaccination rate among students.

As of Monday, 89.6% of 12-17 year olds and 37.8% of 5-11 year olds in San Francisco County were fully vaccinated, according to data tracking from the state.

“San Francisco has remained vigilant and beat back four surges, and we are well positioned with a highly vaccinated population to do the same with this current surge due to Omicron,” Dr. Grant Colfax, SF Director of Public Health, said in a statement. “Throughout the pandemic, San Francisco schools have remained low-risk settings by following proper safety protocols – let’s work together to keep it that way.”

In a statement last week, San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip reiterated a commitment to keeping kids in school, especially as a growing body of research suggests lockdowns and restrictions have taken a toll on students’ mental health.

“We must do everything possible to keep students safely attending schools,” Philip said in a statement Dec. 29. “The mental health impacts on students due to social isolation far outweigh the challenges of in-person learning.”

While K-12 schools in the state are keeping classrooms open, seven out of 10 of the University of California campuses have opted to start the Spring semester online for the first few days of the semester in response to rising case rates. These campuses include UC Davis, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, according to the Sacramento Bee.

The majority of these universities are expected to resume in-person learning Jan. 18, with UC Davis expecting to return Jan. 10.

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