Berkeley kids return to school amid omicron surge

As of Monday afternoon, at least 227 students and staff have tested positive as the Berkeley school district ramps up testing, anticipates new isolation rules.

Niko Lee and parent Jaclyn Lee confirm their information with medical staffer Kaylee Jacobo while waiting the recommended 15 minutes after their vaccines at Rosa Parks Elementary on November 13, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Niko Lee and parent Jaclyn Lee confirm their information with medical staffer Kaylee Jacobo while waiting the recommended 15 minutes after their vaccines at Rosa Parks Elementary on Nov. 13, 2021. File photo: Kelly Sullivan

Berkeley kids returned to school Monday amid a surging omicron wave and a spike in COVID-19 cases at the school district. This week, Berkeley Unified is considering a booster-or-test policy and students could see isolation and masking guidelines change.

In anticipation of a winter surge, BUSD provided students and staff with two at-home rapid tests before they left for break. As of Monday afternoon, there were at least 227 students and staff who reported testing positive for coronavirus, with more positive results coming in that have not yet been accounted for in the district’s official tally.

(As of Sunday, about 60% of the district’s 10,800 students and staff members reported the results of their at-home tests to PrimaryHealth, and 125 more people got tested Monday at the district’s Berkeley Adult School testing site).

Already, there have been far more cases than the district recorded in the past five months combined. In December, prior to the holiday break, the district recorded just 29 individuals testing positive for COVID-19.

Early analysis suggests that case counts may be up in part because of transmission within households. “Anecdotally, looking at emails coming in to our COVID Response Team, we are seeing instances where several or all siblings are positive,” District spokesperson Trish McDermott wrote in an email.

Throughout the pandemic, young people have been the least likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, with children under 18 accounting for only .1% of deaths from the virus. Even before vaccines were available, Berkeley health officials said schools could reopen safely, as long as mitigation measures were in place to reduce infection.

But while officials remain committed to keeping schools open amid the latest surge, omicron puts additional strain on a school district already battling pandemic-induced staff and substitute teacher shortages. Fifty-six teachers and 40 classified staff members were out on Monday, according to McDermott.

To further mitigate the spread of the virus, the district offered rapid testing to students and staff Monday at the Berkeley Adult School.

In addition, BUSD anticipates that it will beef up its mitigation measures, but is waiting for the California Department of Public Health to issue new guidelines for schools. Here’s what changes might be coming soon:

School board to vote on booster-or-test policy

On Wednesday, the Berkeley school board will vote on whether to revise its definition of “fully vaccinated” under the vaccine-or-test policy passed by the board this fall. The policy, which kicked in today, requires students to get fully vaccinated or tested weekly. If approved, the amended policies would require eligible students and staff to get boosted by Feb. 25 or get tested weekly.

The Food and Drug Administration just approved boosters for teens ages 12 to 15 who are five months out from their last shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to recommend the additional dose later this week.

New quarantine and isolation rules could be coming

Last week, the CDC updated its guidelines to reflect the latest understanding of the coronavirus: shortening isolation periods to five days for people testing positive, as long as their symptoms have improved, and requiring five-day quarantine periods for asymptomatic people who are unvaccinated or are more than 6 months out from their last dose and have been exposed to the virus.

BUSD’s policies for quarantine and isolation, which come directly from California’s guidelines for school districts, are expected to change in the coming days when California’s health department updates its rules. When they do, families can expect the rules to align with the CDC’s.

Mask upgrades

Stephens wrote in an email to the community that students may soon be advised to wear KN95 or N95 masks to school, or at least double-mask with a surgical mask and a cloth mask on top. BUSD is considering providing KN95 or N95 masks, which are more effective at reducing transmission.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Correction: This article previously misstated the CDC’s new quarantine guidelines for asymptomatic individuals who received the second dose of the vaccine in the last 6 months. The CDC recommends that they wear a mask around others for ten days, not quarantine.

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