Washington Elementary School 4th grade teacher Dawn Bail instructs class on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Washington Elementary School fourth grade teacher Dawn Bail instructs class on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Ten additional COVID-19 cases were reported this week after Berkeley Unified began surveillance testing Monday for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, bringing the total number of August cases to 36 for all students and staff in the district.

As of Aug. 27, 66% of Malcolm X Elementary students had opted into voluntary COVID-19 testing. BUSD could not confirm the number of students who had opted in throughout the district.

There are currently 523 students on “modified quarantine” after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, while 12 are quarantining at home. That means about 5% of students in Berkeley schools fall into one of those two categories.

Under modified quarantine, students can continue to come to school, but cannot participate in extracurricular activities and are tested twice weekly for ten days. If a student is asymptomatic and was wearing a mask when they were exposed, they qualify for modified quarantine, while students with symptoms or who test positive must quarantine at home. The rules for modified quarantine are pulled directly from California Department of Public Health guidelines.

Superintendent Brent Stephens acknowledged that there had been a rise in cases this month. “This month alone we’ve had more cases on our campuses, more cases we’re investigating than in the previous four months combined,” Stephens said at last week’s school board meeting.

Last week, the community braced for a spike in reported cases once surveillance testing began. “It’s expected to see more positive cases, especially asymptomatic cases, if you’re doing surveillance testing,” said Julie Sinai, a member of the school board. “We just have to be prepared for that.”

But on Tuesday, surveillance testing at John Muir Elementary, Malcolm X Elementary, and King Middle School yielded no positive cases. There were four cases of COVID-19 identified in the district on Monday (two at Oxford Elementary and two at Berkeley High) and six on Wednesday.

“We are not seeing outbreaks, which tells us that vaccinations, symptom screening, masking, testing, and other safety protocols are providing effective risk mitigation for BUSD students and staff,” district spokesperson Trish McDermott wrote in an email to Berkeleyside.

Surveillance testing began two weeks after school opened for kindergarten through sixth graders, most of whom are under 12 and cannot receive the COVID-19 vaccine. BUSD plans to expand surveillance testing to older students once it can secure additional tests.

Students will now receive rapid tests every week, the results of which are available within minutes to hours. Athletes will be tested twice weekly. This year, BUSD made it easier for students to get tested, allowing parents to send in a single consent form covering multiple tests. Teachers are also being tested for the virus on a weekly basis.

Communicating with families about COVID-19 exposure has been a challenge, Stephens acknowledged at last week’s board meeting. BUSD plans to hire additional staff to notify individuals when they exposed.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...