Berkeley schools rely on testing, not contact tracing, to battle omicron surge

The district is relying on its new twice-weekly testing regimen and is giving two KN95 masks to all staff and students.

Elliott Martens (left) receives a COVID-19 test kit with parent Jason Martens at the volunteer-run Predicine test center at Ashby Avenue and Regent Street, on Jan. 6, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

As the omicron variant rips through the Bay Area, the Berkeley school district is shifting its strategy to keep its doors open, offering twice-weekly testing to every K-12 student, ordering batches of KN95 masks, and largely leaving contact tracing behind.

The district plans to deploy 18,000 rapid antigen tests per week and is providing, to start, two KN95 masks to all students and staff. Intended to last two weeks, more KN95s are expected soon.

These are lines of defense against the virus that teachers and students in neighboring districts have pushed for in sick-outs. The district’s testing sites, which include twice-weekly testing at each school and daily testing at Berkeley Adult School and Berkeley High, are staffed with hundreds of community volunteers with the help of Berkeley Public Schools Fund.

“We have the mitigations other districts are fighting for,” said Berkeley High teacher Angela Coppola. “Testing twice a week is something you’d expect at a well-funded tech company, not a public school.”

The Berkeley Unified School District recorded 285 positive cases on campus last week and 167 during the first week of January, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. That’s more cases than the district recorded during the entire first semester. (These numbers only include cases in which students or staff were on campus during their infectious period.)

The district continues to face high absenteeism among students and staff due to the omicron surge. In the first two weeks of January, 12% of students were absent, more than double the absentee rate from the second week of December. And as of Tuesday, 105 teachers and staff were out of school, a slight increase from two weeks prior.

The absences have been challenging for a school district already facing substitute teacher shortages, leaving administrators in charge of classrooms and some positions unfilled.

Still, Berkeley Unified is faring better than some California districts, including nearby West Contra Costa County, where staff absences have forced schools to temporarily shut their doors.

“Many schools have shut down. Luckily, we are not one of them,” Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer said at the school board meeting Wednesday.

But keeping schools operating has come at a high cost to school staff, Meyer said. “We are doing everything we can to make sure that there is an adult in every classroom.”

“It’s difficult to convey the level of stress that accumulates from this ongoing uncertainty that everybody feels on a day to day basis,” Superintendent Brent Stephens said at a school meeting Jan. 19.

In response to the omicron variant and changing public health guidelines, the district has adopted new policies intended to mitigate both the spread of COVID-19 and the burden placed on staff by the surge.

The district has now mostly stopped contact tracing for students and notifying individual close contacts in response to what Superintendent Brent Stephens described as the “now-impossible workload” amid skyrocketing case counts. The new approach, developed with help from the City of Berkeley in the first week of January, assumes that widespread testing will be more effective at identifying positive cases, and will require less administrative lift from the contact-tracing team.

That means far fewer emails about individual students or entire classrooms being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, instead emphasizing the responsibility of all individuals to get tested.

“[I]n most instances we will discontinue close contact notifications during this surge period and instead ask our families to visit BUSD’s COVID case dashboard in order to be informed of new cases at your school,” Stephens wrote in a Jan. 15 letter to the community. (The district will continue to use contact tracing in certain instances.)

Other Bay Area districts like Palo Alto and Marin have also stopped notifying close contacts, while San Francisco Unified is continuing the practice. 

“Due to the increased transmissibility of omicron and the surge in cases, methods of controlling COVID-19 in schools have been adapted to provide a faster and broader response,” Berkeley Health Officer Lisa Hernandez wrote in an email, explaining that California’s guidelines can be widened to the school-level when there are high rates of transmission.

According to group-tracing guidelines released Jan. 12, California Department of Public Health recommends that school districts notify groups such as teams or classrooms when students are exposed to COVID-19.

Stephens and Hernandez said that district policies align with California Public Health, but the superintendent of Palo Alto Unified, which has adopted a similar approach to BUSD, appeared to have a different interpretation of the state guidelines.

“I’ve tried to be nice about it, but I’m done: The California Department of Public Health has no understanding of how schools work,” Palo Alto Superintendent Don Austin told the San Francisco Chronicle

The decision to largely stop notifying classroom close contacts has been met with concern by a few Berkeley parents, including those with young children at home who are ineligible for vaccines, while others say they’re comfortable with the policy.

“For our family, it removes the single most important data point that we need in order to be able to decide on a day to day basis if it is safe enough for us to send our 1st grader to his classroom at Rosa Parks Elementary,” two parents wrote in an email to Superintendent Stephens. 

The changes come in part because California Public Health’s new K-12 group-tracing guidelines no longer recommend different quarantine periods for in-school exposures based on an individual’s vaccination status. Any student who has been exposed at school, as long as they’re asymptomatic, can continue to come to school and participate in extra-curricular activities. In this approach, upgraded masks, indoor ventilation, and testing are being used to combat the virus, not contact tracing.

At the Jan. 19 school board meeting, director Ana Vasudeo urged the district to try to increase the number of students participating in testing. “Your testing program is only as helpful as the amount of consent that you have,” Vasudeo said. In BUSD, 84% of students have opted in to school-based testing, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, a number that’s higher than many other districts but still leaves a sizable portion of the student body without surveillance testing.

As of Jan. 3, unvaccinated BUSD students are required to participate in weekly testing, while all students at Berkeley High and schools with high rates of transmission are encouraged to get tested twice per week.

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