Washington Elementary School 5th grade teacher Mindy Geminder assists students with classwork on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Washington Elementary School fifth grade teacher Mindy Geminder assists students with classwork on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Since the school year began in August, Berkeley Unified has not reported any outbreaks of COVID-19 on its campuses and the numbers of students testing positive or quarantining have remained low.

In the last week, the district has recorded seven positive COVID-19 cases out of a student body of 9,000 and a staff of 1,800. The number of students in modified quarantine has declined from 523 at the start of September to 22 by the end of the month.

Now, there is currently only one student quarantining at home and 12 students in modified quarantine. Earlier this week, there had been no students in either type of quarantine. There were also no staff members quarantining at home, as of Monday.

“BUSD is not seeing COVID-19 case transmission at our schools. This is due largely to students and staff following risk mitigation practices including masking, staying home with symptoms, testing, and vaccinating,” district spokesperson Trish McDermott wrote in an email.

Compared with other districts, BUSD has a greater share of vaccinated students and students opting into surveillance testing. A total of 80% of eligible BUSD students are vaccinated, and 84% of students have registered for surveillance testing. Elsewhere, in school districts like New York City, just 35% of students have agreed to participate in testing.

The school district also provides twice-weekly testing for students in modified quarantine and has opened a testing site at the Berkeley Adult School for symptomatic students and staff.

Since the start of the school year, Berkeley staff vaccination rates have ticked upward, rising from 84% in August up to 92%.

Next semester, BUSD students will be required to get vaccinated or tested weekly, according to a policy passed by the Berkeley Unified school board Oct. 7. Students and staff will be required to be vaccinated with no testing option under a new California law, which could kick in as soon as Jan. 1 or as late as July 1.

Earlier in the school year, board members braced for a wave of positive COVID-19 cases as the district ramped up surveillance testing for students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Three days into surveillance testing, there were 10 new positive COVID-19 cases and over 500 students were in modified quarantine.

“I’m nervous that the alarm bells are going to go really hog-wild once we start doing surveillance testing,” school board director Julie Sinai said at an August school board meeting.

But that wave has not come. The numbers of COVID-19 cases have remained relatively steady since the start of the year and the number of students quarantining has declined.

“COVID safety is really about everyone doing their part. BUSD’s low case rate is the result of an entire community committed to keeping our schools open and safe during this pandemic,” McDermott wrote.

There were 36 positive cases of COVID-19 in August and 32 in September. So far this month, 24 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 at BUSD schools. Due to privacy concerns, the district does not report the outcome of those cases. In the city of Berkeley, case rates were on the decline after a surge associated with the delta variant.

Implementing BUSD’s modified quarantine policy has been a heavy lift, requiring the district to hire additional staff to coordinate contact tracing and facilitate testing. While vaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19 do not have to quarantine, unvaccinated students can continue coming to school after being exposed to COVID-19 while masked, provided they undergo twice weekly testing and do not develop symptoms.

The testing regimen put “a tremendous strain on our administrative resources, and our ability to communicate clearly to our community, and to track multiple cases and ensure that we minimize the disruption to students education,” Superintendent Brent Stephens said at a school board meeting Aug. 25.

On Tuesday, an FDA panel recommended approving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use in children ages 5 to 11, but the approval still has to go before the CDC. BUSD has “no plans to immediately end surveillance testing of students ages 5-11 with vaccine emergency approval,” McDermott said. She said district officials would reevaluate vaccination levels and disease transmission rates in late December “prior to considering any changes to our surveillance testing program as well as any other safety protocols.”

Some caution that the low case rates are not cause for celebration. The school district has only implemented surveillance testing for students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade, so positive COVID-19 cases may be going unnoticed among middle and high school students. At the high school, only student athletes in high-transmission sports like basketball and wrestling are required to be tested once per week.

Even without outbreaks or school closures, COVID-19 continues to disrupt daily life.

Staff and substitute teacher shortages exacerbated by the pandemic have put additional stress on teachers and administrators stepping in to cover classes. At a school board meeting last week, some Berkeley High teachers said the shortage of security guards has contributed to a chaotic climate in the hallways.

And last week, all school bus service was canceled after most of the transportation department was exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus. Staff are required to quarantine after coming into close contact with someone with COVID-19 if they are unvaccinated or are vaccinated and symptomatic.

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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,...