Berkeley High records year’s first COVID-19 outbreak

At least five students have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 700 people have been identified as close contacts in connection with an outbreak associated with a Berkeley High sports team.

Students in the hallway of Berkeley High School on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Students in the hallway of Berkeley High School on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Five people at Berkeley High tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday in an outbreak connected with one of the school’s sports teams. It’s the district’s first outbreak of the school year.

Two additional people also tested positive Thursday at Berkeley High. They are not known to be connected to the outbreak, but six of Thursday’s seven positive cases involve Berkeley High sports teams.

The cases were identified through the district’s surveillance testing program, which offers testing for students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade and for high schoolers participating in high-transmission sports. Only student-athletes on the wrestling and basketball teams currently receive surveillance testing at the high school. Due to reasons of privacy, the district isn’t disclosing which sports team the outbreak is associated with.

More than 700 close contacts were identified in connection with the outbreak, according to district spokesperson Trish McDermott. Vaccinated students and staff who came into contact with people testing positive can continue attending school as normal. Provided that both people were masked, unvaccinated students who were close contacts can undergo modified quarantine for 10 days, which means they can attend school but not participate in sports or other extra-curricular activities.

The number of positive cases at Berkeley Unified had remained relatively steady since the start of the school year. There were 36 positive cases of COVID-19 in August and 32 in September. So far this month, 32 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at BUSD schools. The test positivity rate at BUSD rate remains low.

Due to privacy concerns, BUSD does not report the outcome of positive COVID-19 cases.

Prior to this outbreak, the number of students in at-home and modified quarantine had been steadily declining. The number of students in modified quarantine fell from 523 at the start of September to 22 by the end of the month. Earlier this week, there had been no students in either type of quarantine. As of Monday, there were also no staff members quarantining at home, either.

BUSD had avoided outbreaks through a combination of masking, testing, vaccination, and other policies like staying home with symptoms, according to McDermott. The share of students who are vaccinated (80%) and who registered for surveillance testing (84%) remains high relative to other school districts.

Next semester, all BUSD students will have to get vaccinated or tested weekly. Once the state’s vaccine mandate kicks in, which is looking more likely to happen July 1 (after the FDA fully approves the vaccine), all students and staff will have to be vaccinated to attend school.

Vaccines remain highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths, but their efficacy in preventing infection is beginning to wane. Infections at Berkeley schools have included both unvaccinated and vaccinated people, due to the existence of breakthrough infections. But even before vaccination, children and teens were much less likely than older adults to experience serious illness as a result of COVID-19.

The only other COVID-19 outbreak associated with Berkeley schools occurred in connection with the boys basketball team last spring. In April, at least three people tested positive for COVID-19 after most students did not wear face coverings while working out at one indoor practice and two outdoor practice during boys basketball tryouts. Students tied to the basketball team also reportedly did not wear masks at “non-BHS” indoor workouts the week prior. 

This is a developing story. Know something? Email our schools reporter at ally@berkeleyside.org.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.