Despite the surge, Berkeley Unified plans to stay open with bolstered testing

The district has ramped up its testing and plans to provide 19,000 rapid tests weekly to all students.

80% of BUSD students vaccinated as vaccine-or-test deadline approaches
Mia Gonzalez gets vaccinated while holding parent Brisa Montilla’s hand at Rosa Parks Elementary on Nov. 13, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Berkeley Unified School District saw its largest-ever case surge of COVID-19 the second week of January, counting at least 153 cases between Jan. 3 and Jan. 8 with the majority concentrated at Berkeley High School, but administrators say increased testing will allow the district to remain open through the surge.

The spike is a massive jump from previous weekly totals, which usually hovered around low double-digit totals across all K-12 campuses. As the Bay Area grapples with a region-wide case surge with the omicron variant, school campuses have been contending with “sickouts” and potential strikes as students and staff raise concerns about their safety on campus.

In Berkeley this week, about 12% of students were absent Monday, dropping back to 10% on Wednesday, similar to the first few days of school this year. Teacher absences increased from 53 teachers and 46 classified staff absences Monday to 65 teachers and 50 classified staff Wednesday.

Superintendent Brent Stephens said this week’s cases were detected through at-home tests, surveillance testing at schools and rapid testing at the Berkeley Adult School (separate from the city-run Curative test site at the adult school). The dashboard only logs cases where someone infected with the virus has been on campus, and are in addition to 227 cases detected by at-home tests that BUSD sent its students before they returned to campus in January.

The current weekly data in the dashboard reflects results from surveillance testing once a week for elementary school students. BUSD has now expanded that testing to its entire K-12 cohort, twice a week. That means it has an “audacious goal” of offering 19,000 tests weekly, Stephens said, with about 84% of campuses currently registered to be tested.

The vast majority of cases are contracting COVID from off-campus activities — we don’t have evidence that transmission is happening on campus,” Stephens said, explaining that while community spread on campuses is still a possibility, masking is ubiquitous and classrooms are equipped with air purifiers and good ventilation. The district also has an 80% vaccination rate, and is soon expanding its vaccinated-or-test policy on Feb. 25 to require boosters of everyone eligible.

He added that the concentration of cases, and their timing, indicates that students and staff are not all contracting COVID-19 in a single classroom at the same time, for example.

But the high incidence of cases is still a major concern and reflects omicron’s widespread local impact. Stephens said he doesn’t anticipate another school closure, and the district is pulling out all the stops to make sure it doesn’t, but surge conditions are not sustainable.

“It’s difficult to imagine us living in these types of circumstances for very long,” Stephens said. “Outside of this surge, I think we had begun to arrive at sort of an equilibrium where most of us sort of tolerated mitigation strategies and were able to get back to a form of schooling that doesn’t yet feel normal, but nonetheless is gratifying for students and teachers.”

BUSD’s case dashboard, updated since 2020, tracks cases at all K-12 campuses and the percentage of students who are registered to be tested regularly. Credit: BUSD

Volunteers are supporting BUSD’s large testing operation

BUSD Superintendent Dr. Brent Stevens addresses incoming 6th graders at Longfellow Middle School on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
BUSD Superintendent Dr. Brent Stevens addresses incoming 6th graders at Longfellow Middle School on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

BUSD put out a call for volunteers to support its surveillance testing goals this week, and over 100 people have signed up for shifts. These roles, through the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, will be alongside 20 existing, full-time staff technicians that the district is contracting with for its surge testing protocols.

The district allocated $2.5 million for risk mitigation and student learning support during COVID-19 and a portion of this budget is paying for the new testing protocols, Stephens said. According to the district’s most recent newsletter, BUSD has also ordered 10,000 KN95 masks to be delivered this week, with an additional 30,000 on backorder.

If the testing program is successful, he called it one of the most secure and comprehensive school testing programs in the country.

“I feel very buoyed up by the enthusiasm of this community for this testing effort,” Stephens said. “It really will make a difference to have this number of volunteers on our campuses and I think it’s going to be Berkeley’s ace up its sleeve if we can achieve this.”

In nearby districts, like Palo Alto, almost 1,000 volunteers have been filling in for positions that have been difficult to keep staffed, like nutrition and playground support. The Berkeley Public Schools Fund currently has 400 volunteers in classrooms and 800 for “school support” like testing and playground support, according to Erin Rhoades, the organization’s executive director.

BUSD had been facing shortages of substitute teachers and high-need positions like special education aides since the start of the school year. During the omicron surge, Stephens said all certificated administrators have been mobilized to work classroom and school leadership positions, and substitutes have been offered an increased day rate of $300 to keep classrooms running.

While the district is pushing back hard against a widespread shutdown again after being open since fall 2021, certain classrooms may still endure brief closures and interruptions due to COVID-19 cases.

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's homelessness and housing reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.