Two Covid cases reported on the first day of school, quarantining an entire classroom or canceling sports games are some of the stories schools have reported since in-person classes started in early August.
Despite how alarming these facts sound, PK Diffenbaugh, superintendent of Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, notes most cases aren’t acquired at school. “Schools are still very safe places for students,” he says.
Still, schools have a new normal. At Marshall Elementary in Seaside, third-graders were quarantined for 10 days after four students tested positive for Covid-19. They went back to online learning – something kids and teachers learned to do last school year.
“We were able to easily shift, keep the routines clear, so we haven’t seen a lack of engagement from our students,” says Cresta McIntosh, associate superintendent of educational services at MPUSD.
That doesn’t mean back-to-school during a pandemic is easy. Nicky Williams, president of the Monterey Bay Teachers Association, notes that substitute teachers normally take over in case a teacher is exposed and needs to quarantine, but there is a shortage of substitute teachers. “There is also a heightened sense of anxiety among staff and students as we try to navigate the pandemic both in school and in our personal lives,” Williams adds by email.
Last month, California became the first state to require teachers and staff in K-12 settings either to get vaccinated by Oct. 15 or be regularly tested.
Of about 10,000 MPUSD students, the district has confirmed six school-acquired and 120 community-acquired Covid infections so far this school year. Carmel Unified School District has reported 15 school-acquired cases, and Pacific Grove Unified 14 since the school year began; neither is reporting community-based cases. “The fact that we have universal masking inside makes a huge difference at the school site,” Diffenbaugh says.
Brenda Catalan, a mom of three, has two kids at the Dual Language Academy of the Monterey Peninsula, both too young to be vaccinated. She says it was a hard decision for her and her husband to send them back in-person. “In the end, I felt it was best for both of my children. So much is accomplished with in-person learning and I wanted my children to have the opportunity to learn to their full potential.” One reason they went for it, Catalan adds, is because masks are mandatory.
At MPUSD, protocols have remained the same since the beginning of the school year. The only major change is a testing site was relocated from schools to the Cabrillo Family Resource Center in Seaside where about 400 students are tested per day, twice a week. “With the number of students that are put on a modified quarantine and need to be tested twice a week, we’ve moved toward a more centralized location,” Diffenbaugh says.
The district is also providing home testing kits because families can’t find them at local pharmacies; students have to show negative results before they can resume in-person learning.