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Student and staff absences increase at Berkeley schools amid omicron wave

Devon Brewer, science teacher at Berkeley High School, teaches on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

More than 60 staff and around 10% of students were absent from Berkeley Unified Schools in the first days of the New Year as the spread of the omicron variant has skyrocketed COVID-19 cases in Berkeley. The absences show how the new variant, although softer, is already shaking up everyday life.

The school district is launching a counter-response, increasing substitute pay rates and adding tests to detect cases. And on Wednesday night, the school board adopted a recall or testing policy for students and staff that goes into effect on February 25.

About 342 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 and reported the results to the school district between December 24 and January 5. Many of these cases are not recorded on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, as the dashboard only records cases where a person infected with the virus has been on campus.

As of Monday, 953 students were not in class; Tuesday 781. Not all absences are due to COVID-19: During the first week of December, when the district reported only a handful of cases, more than 400 students (5%) were out of school , and there are generally more students absent right after the holidays, as students return from family trips.

School districts nationwide are facing similar or even higher absence rates: Public schools in New York City reported that 30% of their students did not attend school on January 5.

About 3% of the staff were absent on Tuesday. These absences, many of which are caused by the highly contagious variant of omicron, put additional strain on long-working overdrive school employees. Since the start of the school year, BUSD has faced a shortage of substitute teachers and high-need positions like special education assistants: now the need to fill classrooms is growing.

“We have reached a critical point of staff shortages in our schools,” Superintendent Brent Stephens said at the school board meeting on Jan. 5. “We have a large number of absent teachers and we do not have substitute teachers at the moment to be able to meet this need. We have several empty classrooms which create very difficult situations in our schools. ”

Stephens warned families to expect disruption: Classes could be combined and moved to the gym or library, and some, like physical education, music or science, could be canceled altogether if those teachers had to. fill in the absences in the main subjects. After-hours meetings could also be interrupted. Stephens has pledged that services for students with disabilities and English language learners will not be affected.

“Our teachers are doing everything to keep our schools open and it can only last so long,” said Matt Meyer, president of the district teachers’ union. Teachers, he said, replace each other during their preparation periods. He called on the district to increase testing, demand improved masks for students, and provide N95 or KN95 masks for teachers.

While Stephens expects obstacles on the road, he said he was “very optimistic that we will get through this wave without any closures of classrooms or schools”.

BUSD hopes to fill the classrooms by increasing the supply teacher rates to $ 300 per day and is asking for certified administrators to step in to serve as substitute teachers or principals for the duration of the increase.

People line up for free COVID tests at a volunteer-run Predicine testing center on Ashby in Regent St., as seen on January 6, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
People line up for free COVID-19 tests at a volunteer-run Predicine testing center on Ashby Avenue in Regent Street on January 6, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The school district is also stepping up testing, keeping its testing site at Berkeley Adult School open the rest of the week, and working to get more home test kits and distribute them as soon as possible to all secondary school students, regardless of vaccination status. With omicron, two doses of the vaccine are only 35% effective in preventing infection, while boosters are 75% effective, according to CDC data.

Preschool teacher Deborah Thies has called on the school board to make testing available to preschoolers, who have been excluded from school testing offers. “It feels like COVID has the potential to get out of hand in our preschools,” said Thies, who cares for sick and elderly parents at home and is concerned about bringing the virus home.

The district plans to distribute home test kits to preschoolers soon, but the inclusion of children under 4 in the school-based testing system has been difficult due to a regulatory hurdle: the testing company offers self-administered tests, but tests for children under 4 must be administered by a registered adult, Stephens explained. So far, the district has not been able to find a testing company that will perform testing for children this young.

At their Jan. 5 meeting, school board members applauded the district’s success in distributing rapid tests to all students and staff in anticipation of a wave of COVID-19, achieved in part thanks to the principal from the Ana Vasudeo school board. Vasudeo, who also works as the general manager of Safely Opening Schools, has helped districts statewide, including BUSD, gain access to rapid home tests before the holidays. The testing kits have enabled students and staff to achieve results that would otherwise have been hard to come by amid a testing shortage that has left city testing sites with long queues and timetables. full appointments.

On Wednesday evening, the school board added a recall requirement to its current vaccine or testing policies for students and staff. Policies now state that eligible students and staff must receive a booster dose or get tested weekly, starting February 25.

“By adopting the policy, the board wishes to encourage both eligible students and staff to receive the booster shot,” Stephens said. “There is good and strong evidence that the vaccine booster protects both against transmission and limits the impact of this new variant on the health of individuals.”

Next year, students and staff will need to be immunized before they can attend school, according to a policy announced by California Governor Gavin Newsom this fall. State policy does not yet have an amendment for boosters.