San Francisco Chronicle

Maze of rules as districts struggle to keep kids safe

- By Jill Tucker

Inside reopened classrooms in California, most students are back in seats, once again studying the life cycles of frogs, the sonnets of Shakespear­e or what x equals in an algebraic equation.

Behind the scenes, adults are still debating how to keep schools safe amid a pandemic. Each district has adopted its own policy on masking, vaccinatio­n, testing, ventilatio­n or more, making for a dizzying array of rules — many of which have led to community outcry.

Los Angeles, the second-largest district in the

“We should be doing everything we can to protect them the way we protected ourselves.” Marjorie Sturm, parent of two children in S.F. school district

country, has become something of a standout, requiring weekly testing as well as vaccinatio­ns for all students and staff — a policy that exceeds health requiremen­ts and pressures other districts to follow suit.

There is no one way to navigate this pandemic in the state’s public schools. It’s a juggling act, officials say, a no-win scenario.

It is “uncharted territory,” said Alameda County Superinten­dent L.K. Monroe.

“Each district is grappling with this,” she said. “Every superinten­dent is feeling the pressure from the community. People want different things.”

In San Ramon, parents loudly protested masks in early August, shouting down elected officials, calling them cowards and lunatics.

In San Francisco, a few weeks later, parents and teachers rallied at City Hall, demanding free and better masks, regular testing for students and staff, and air filtration systems in every classroom to address the combinatio­n of COVID-19 and wildfire smoke.

And in Manteca (San Joaquin County), at raucous public meetings, the demands from parents and teachers fall on both sides — some want more protection­s, some say the protection­s are unnecessar­y.

Each county health department provides guidelines for in-person instructio­n and the state requires indoor masking in all schools, but some districts choose to exceed the guidelines or rules.

In Oakland, for example, the district opted to require masking outdoors. San Francisco, in turn, requires students who come into close contact with an infected person to isolate at home — rather than to come to school and get tested twice a week during the quarantine period, which was what the county recommende­d.

In general, however, regional school districts have hewed closely to county guidelines, relying on health experts to dictate what needs to be done to make schools safe.

“As a branch of government, we have an obligation to do that,” said Clark Burke, Manteca Unified superinten­dent. “We are referring to the experts in the field who are providing health mandates and structure for what we’re doing.

“Our directive is to educate kids in a safe environmen­t.”

That said, Manteca was ahead of the curve swapping drinking fountains for water refill stations and putting air purifiers in classrooms last school year.

But what Los Angeles is doing isn’t an issue for Manteca, he said.

“I would wonder what the decision-making process that got them to that point is,” he said. “Is it political in nature? Is it rooted in science?”

Los Angeles will require all students 12 and older to get vaccinated by January, a decision announced last week. It is the first district in the country to do so. Students turning 12 have eight weeks to get vaccinated after their birthday.

The decision follows the district’s decision to baselinete­st all staff and students before the start of the school year this month and once a week thereafter.

Los Angeles Unified is testing 95,000 people per day, at a cost of $31 each — or a total of $2.9 million, according to district officials. For a 180-day school year, that’s more than $530 million. The state is expected to cover at least part of the cost.

The decision last week to require eligible students to be vaccinated by January, despite a lack of full federal authorizat­ion of the vaccine for those younger than 16, could result in lawsuits against the district and the withdrawal of students from the district’s schools.

“This decision was not made lightly,” said Interim Superinten­dent Megan Reilly. “Every single person in our Los Angeles Unified community has been impacted by COVID-19 in some way, and we feel a strong commitment to do our part to ensure that the worst of the pandemic remains behind us.

In San Francisco, some parents and teachers have pointed to Los Angeles as an example, arguing that San Francisco schools should also conduct weekly testing and other mitigation efforts to keep students and staff safe.

“We should be protecting our under-12-year-olds,” said parent Marjorie Sturm, who has children ages 13 and 17 in district schools. “We should be doing everything we can to protect them the way we protected ourselves.”

Sturm would like to see frequent testing of at least once a month, upgraded air filtration and more full-time nurses in schools.

“It would reassure people,” she said. “I really do think, ethically, as a culture we need to protect kids who are not vaccinated.”

Yet with limited resources, districts have to choose what to spend time, staff and money on, Monroe said. During the pandemic, it’s no different.

Testing all students and staff once a week doesn’t just require the tests, but also a huge logistical operation to administer the tests and distribute the results. It also requires giving up instructio­nal time to get hundreds or thousands of students at each school through the testing line.

Currently, most districts require tests for employees and students who are symptomati­c, with many teachers, employees and families selfreport­ing test results from their health providers.

In addition, the state will require unvaccinat­ed adults in schools to submit to weekly testing starting in October.

County health guidelines in San Francisco and many other areas so far do not require additional testing.

The question is whether weekly testing like what’s required in Los Angeles would make a difference in a city where more than 80% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated and the school district has reported no confirmed cases of in-school transmissi­on since classrooms reopened nearly a month ago.

By comparison, 66% of Los Angeles is fully vaccinated, with much lower rates for communitie­s of color, with 51% of Black residents, for example, having at least one dose.

In the Southern California city, as of Friday, the district had a positive case rate of 0.9%, with 1,301 active coronaviru­s cases, including one case of in-school transmissi­on.

In San Francisco, the most recent weekly case rate available was about 0.1% and even lower in recent days.

Would it make more sense, asked San Francisco school board member Jenny Lam, to target resources where they are needed most.

It’s about identifyin­g where the district can make the greatest impact with the resources it has. That could be increased surveillan­ce testing, which would test a large number or all students to identify asymptomat­ic cases.

“What are the challenges, where are the gaps, and where are the resources to fulfill testing?” she said. “You need to be able to understand what resources it’s going to take.”

Adding to the complicate­d logistics is the unpredicta­bility of the pandemic, Lam said.

“There is new informatio­n on a weekly, daily basis,” she said. “That requires public institutio­ns to adapt quickly.”

That’s not always easy, Monroe said. Los Angeles has economies of scale, which make it hard for a lot of other districts to always follow their lead, even if they want to do so.

With different population­s, varying resources, and politics all in play, it’s a lot to fall on districts, Monroe added.

“And it’s hard,” she said. “It’s difficult and challengin­g each and every day. It’s not anything any of us could have fathomed.”

 ?? Jessica Christian / The Chronicle ?? A second-grader works on a project at Garfield Elementary School in Oakland shortly after classes reopened last month.
Jessica Christian / The Chronicle A second-grader works on a project at Garfield Elementary School in Oakland shortly after classes reopened last month.

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