Berkeley High School science instructor Devon Brewer teaches class on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

More than 60 staff members and about 10% of students were absent from Berkeley Unified schools in the first few days of the new year, as the spread of the omicron variant sent COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in Berkeley. The absences show the extent to which the new variant, though more mild, is already upending daily life.

The school district is launching a counter-response, raising pay rates for substitutes and adding testing in an effort to catch cases. And on Wednesday night, the school board passed a booster-or-test policy for students and staff that will take effect Feb. 25.

Approximately 342 students and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and reported the results to the school district between Dec. 24 and Jan. 5. Many of these cases aren’t recorded on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, since the dashboard only logs cases where someone infected with the virus has been on campus.

On Monday, 953 students were out of class; on Tuesday, 781. Not all of the absences are due to COVID-19: In the first week of December, when the district was reporting only a handful of cases, more than 400 students (5%) were out of school, and there are typically more absent students right after the holidays as students return from family trips.

School districts nationwide are facing similar or even greater absence rates: New York City public schools reported that 30% of its students did not come to school Jan. 5.

About 3% of staff were absent on Tuesday. These absences, many caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, are putting additional strain on school employees long working in overdrive. BUSD had been facing shortages of substitute teachers and high-need positions like special education aides since the start of the school year: Now, the need to fill classrooms is only growing.

“We have reached a point of critical shortage of staff in our schools,” Superintendent Brent Stephens said at the school board meeting Jan. 5. “We’ve got large numbers of absent teachers and we do not have substitute teachers right now to be able to meet that need. We have multiple unfilled classrooms that are creating very difficult situations in our schools.”

Stephens warned families to expect disruptions: Classes could be combined and moved to the gym or library, and some, like physical education, music, or science, could be canceled altogether if those teachers have to fill absences in core subjects. After-hours meetings could also come to a halt. Stephens promised services for students with disabilities and English language learners won’t be impacted.

“Our teachers are putting in everything they have to keep our schools open and it can only be sustained for so long,” said Matt Meyer, president of the district’s teachers union. Teachers, he said, are filling in for one another during their prep periods. He called on the district to increase testing, require upgraded masks for students and provide N95 or KN95 masks to teachers.

While Stephens expects bumps in the road, he said he is “very optimistic that we’ll make it through this surge without any classroom closures or school closures.”

BUSD hopes to fill classrooms by raising rates for substitutes to $300 per day and is asking that certificated administrators step in to serve as substitute teachers or principals for the duration of the surge.

People line up for free COVID testing at a volunteer-run Predicine testing center on Ashby at Regent St. as seen on January 6, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
People line up for free COVID-19 testing at a volunteer-run Predicine testing center on Ashby Avenue at Regent Street on Jan. 6, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The school district is also ramping up testing, keeping its testing site at the Berkeley Adult School open the rest of the week, and is working to get more at-home test kits and distribute them as soon as possible to all high school students, regardless of vaccination status. With omicron, two doses of the vaccine are only 35% effective at preventing infection, while boosters are 75% effective, according to CDC data.

Preschool teacher Deborah Thies asked the school board to make tests available to preschoolers, who have been left out of school-based testing offerings. “It feels like COVID has the potential to get out of control at our preschools,” said Thies, who is caring for ill and elderly parents at home and worried about bringing the virus home to them.

The district plans to distribute at-home test kits to preschoolers soon, but including children under 4 years old in the school-based testing system has been difficult due to a regulatory hurdle: The testing company provides self-administered tests, but tests for children under 4 have to be administered by a registered adult, Stephens explained. So far, the district hasn’t been able to find a testing company that will perform the tests for kids that young.

At their Jan. 5 meeting, school board members applauded the district’s success in distributing rapid tests to all students and staff in anticipation of a COVID-19 surge, achieved in part thanks to School Board Director Ana Vasudeo. Vasudeo also works as the managing director of Safely Opening Schools, where she helped districts across the state, including BUSD, get access to at-home rapid tests before the holiday break. The test kits enabled students and staff to get results that would have otherwise been difficult to find amid a testing shortage that has left the city’s testing sites with long lines and fully booked appointment calendars.

Wednesday night, the school board added a booster requirement to its current vaccine-or-test policies for students and staff. The policies now say that eligible students and staff have to get a booster dose or get tested weekly, beginning Feb. 25.

“By passing the policy, the board wants to encourage both eligible students and staff to receive the booster shot,” Stephens said. “There is good, strong evidence that having the booster shot both protects against the transmission and limits the impact of this new variant on individuals’ health.”

Next year, students and staff will be required to be vaccinated in order to attend school, according to a policy announced by California Governor Gavin Newsom this fall. The state policy does not yet have an amendment for boosters.

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,...