Published Feb. 3, 2022
BY SHAYLA DUTTA
Although seemingly milder, the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 has swept through Carmel Unified School District, infecting students and staff alike while also necessitating changes to the district’s current and past measures to keep schools safe and open.
What is CUSD’s current situation?
On the Carmel Unified website, the district keeps a running list of “school-based cases.” As of Jan. 24, the district has reported 175 school-based cases in total, 83 from Carmel High School alone.
“We know we have more kids than that who have contracted COVID,” says CHS principal Jon Lyons, who explains the numbers from the district represent the transmissions they believe with reasonable certainty occurred on campus.
The cases that weren’t likely transmitted on a CUSD campus are reported directly to Monterey County, who has reported a total of more than 9,100 cases between the ages of 0 and 17. As this encompasses the entire county since its first cases in 2020, this number is drastically larger than the district’s reports for this school year. Although the district positivity rate is estimated to be lower than Monterey County, community transmission in the county and state is still categorized as “high” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While there are still a disproportionate number of student and teacher absences due to the pandemic, CUSD is in a relatively good position in comparison to the county, state and nation.
What is the district’s response?
The answer is strictly adhering to the guidelines set forth by the California Department of Public Health.
“CDPH guidance is medical experts telling me what to do,” CUSD superintendent Ted Knight says. “My goal is to keep schools open, and the best way to keep schools open is to follow that guidance.”
Currently, CDPH guidelines require masking indoors and recommends, but does not require, ventilation systems, masking outdoors and certain procedures for quarantine, isolation, cleaning and food service.
“Testing, masking and vaccinations are the way out,” Lyons says. “To the best of our ability, we want to increase people’s comfort about being in school every day.”
Beginning Jan. 17, CHS adopted a new group-tracing approach to testing put forth by the CDPH, a shift from the previous method of individual, mandatory contact tracing. That method often recommended quarantine and testing depending on the vaccination status of a close contact, defined as someone who spent more than 15 minutes within three feet of another positive individual.
“Now, if there’s an exposure in class, it’s completely voluntary to get tested,” explains Danielle Caoili, a contact tracer for the district. “With our old protocol, it was helpful to just pick kids out who were actually positive out of class. But I think our new protocol now is better so that kids having to disclose whether they’re vaccinated or unvaccinated is not an issue.”
One noted difference from students’ return to school last spring is the relaxation of social distancing on campus. The initial return in the 2020-21 school year saw spaced desks and instructions to sit six feet apart when eating or otherwise maskless outdoors. But in response to schools’ difficulty in accommodating all of their students, CDPH guidelines changed.
“It’s just not possible to fit 800 kids in a high school six feet apart,” Knight says. “We still tell people to social distance if you can, but it’s no longer required.”
What the district is certain of, short of an extreme statewide shift, is that the schools will not close. At the conclusion of last school year, California essentially removed that possibility. Instead, school districts–independently, or in partnership with others–are required by the state to offer an “independent study” option for students who don’t feel comfortable being in school.
“What we know from the pandemic is that students need to be in school and with their classmates.” the superintendent says. “When school first closed in March, it wasn’t as bad because most parents were home, too. The problem was that next August when parents had to go back to work, kids weren’t going back to school.”
Regardless of the number of students and staff absent, CUSD has no plans to close school. While teachers are urged to take these absences into consideration and be gentle with the workload imposed on sick students, there are no standardized rules or a threshold of absences to halt instruction.
The issue arises with teacher absences, compounded by a substitute teacher shortage impacting not only CUSD but schools all across the nation. In response, the district created a “depth chart” for all teachers and certified personnel. After all the substitute teachers have been called, administrators will turn to an ordered list of other district employees certified to teach or work in other positions, such as serving food.
“Our goal is to keep school open by making sure that no matter how many people are gone, we just keep backfilling,” Knight says. “I’m certified to teach. If we run out of teachers, I might get called.”
The superintendent also added that, unless CDPH guidelines do so, CUSD is not considering mandating vaccines.
“The minute we don’t stick to CDPH guidelines, we’re fair game,” Knight says. “I think vaccines help all of us, but if we go outside of that guidance, we don’t have the weight of the law behind us.”
This stands for all issues, including masks and other responsive measures to COVID-19: In almost all cases, the district intends to strictly follow state guidelines. In certain cases, schools have made decisions to pause certain programs, like sports or other teams, when it becomes a hotspot for COVID-19 cases.
What is the consensus?
“What I’m seeing among students is a mixture of fear, confusion and ‘but I still want to go to school,’” Lyons says. “But I’m encouraged by the fact that kids are taking this seriously.”
According to Lyons, mask compliance at CHS is high for the most part. Districtwide, the community response has also been mostly positive.
“At this point, as long as kids are in school, a supermajority of parents appreciate what we’re doing,” Knight says. “What we’re doing might not be ideal, but it’s still better than closing school.”
While there exists no course of action to please everyone, the district is seeing high vaccination rates, high masking compliance and support from students and parents. The superintendent perceives the general consensus is an emphasis on schools remaining open and safe, the district’s ultimate goals in an unpredictable new year.