The omicron variant of COVID-19 has so affected California's teaching workforce that many schools are considering closure and, in some cases, are being forced to declare emergency days. The quality of instruction is suffering, but some teachers say they still prefer such a situation to remote instruction.
Last week in the Simi Valley Unified School District, northwest of Los Angeles, there were only enough substitutes to cover for about half of the teachers who stayed home after testing positive for COVID-19.
"It's unsustainable," Superintendent Jason Peplinski said last week.
The good news is that California public health experts expect the surge in cases to end in March. But the consequences of the highly transmissible variant and the acute school staffing crisis it has caused could last much longer than the increase in the number of cases.
Teacher shortages and unprecedented absenteeism are disrupting learning, extending the long-term academic consequences of COVID-19.
"But what's a teacher to do when half her class is gone?" said Peplinsky. "Do you keep teaching an unfinished subject and expect the class to catch up?"
COVID-19 infection rates among students and staff are at an all-time high in many school districts. In Simi Valley Unified, positivity rates among students jumped from less than 1 percent to 6.5 percent in the last month.
In the last two weeks alone in California school districts, the number of positive COVID-19 cases has tripled from what it was before Omicron.
Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, said public health experts expect the number of cases to decline within a month. She said sewage testing in San Francisco has already shown a decrease.
"We're all praying that everything will get better by the end of February," he said. "That's the hope."
But until then, schools will have to endure staff absences that were previously unimaginable.
Teacher shortages plagued California even before 2020. The pandemic amplified the shortage and omicron brought it to a breaking point. While many teachers tested positive and must remain quarantined, a minority of them became seriously ill, leading to many mixed feelings among teachers about closing schools.
In 2021, K-12 schools accounted for about 18 percent of workplace outbreaks in California. Schools outpaced health care facilities in terms of COVID-19 outbreaks in the fall.
At San Diego Unified's Rosa Parks Elementary School District, one-third of teachers were out the first week of January, according to school board President Richard Barrera. Districtwide, about 15 percent of employees were out on any given day since the school year resumed after winter break.
In Simi Valley Unified, the district raised pay rates for substitutes from $110 to $205 per day in early January to prepare for the spread of omicron, but it hasn't made much of a difference.
Gov. Gavin Newsom last week issued an order removing barriers to credentialing and retention of substitute teachers, measures that district superintendent Peplinski called well-intentioned but "ridiculous."
"With all due respect to the governor, that doesn't solve a Monday problem," he said. "That ameliorates a five-week problem as of now. That's a joke."
As some school districts have already closed schools, Governor Newsom suggested last week that they may have to extend their school years to make up for lost time.
However, a spokesman for the governor clarified that Newsom was not proposing to extend school years as a statewide strategy.
Hayward Unified in the Bay Area reopened campuses Tuesday after a week of mostly remote instruction. The district had six in-person "learning centers" for students who could not participate in virtual learning.
Dionicia Ramos, spokeswoman for the Hayward Unified School District, said district officials do not anticipate the need to extend the school year to make up for lost instructional days.
The Palo Alto Unified School District recruited 800 parent volunteers to fill in for assistant teachers when classrooms are combined due to teacher shortages. Superintendent Don Austin said about 10 percent of teachers and staff have been out every day, but this fleet of parents has ruled out the possibility of schools closing.
"This is for this increase and the subsequent increase," he said. "This is our security blanket."
Lost learning, again
In California's hardest-hit high schools, including within the Sacramento City Unified District, San Diego Unified District and Simi Valley Unified District, classes are being combined and relocated to gymnasiums or auditoriums, raising concerns about compliance with safety protocols.
"At least two or three classes are organized with one or two teachers," said Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Unified teachers union. "You can't adequately supervise more than 100 kids."
In districts across the state, a single teacher might be supervising three or four classes in larger spaces to allow for physical distancing. Students receive little or no instruction, according to administrators and teachers. Teaching becomes virtually impossible with such a mix of subject-based classes.
"What do you teach when you have so many kids from other classes?" said Borden. "Are you constantly re-teaching - do you want to introduce new topics?"
California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said in early January that the state teachers union remains committed to keeping schools open, but called on the state to provide high-quality masks, rapid testing and additional sick days for teachers.
While students who come to school benefit socially from being close to teachers and classmates, the rampant loss of instructional time is reminiscent of the early months of the pandemic.
Robin Shugars, a special education teacher at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, pulled all but one of her students last week after her other students, who ride the same bus to school, tested positive.
"It's hard to conduct a lesson with most of the students outside," Shugars said. "Those students are not going to get the help they need."
School districts that hired more teachers and counselors in 2021 to help students recover from the academic and mental health costs of distance learning must now redirect those resources to address severe staffing shortages.
"We hired these people to help accelerate learning," said Christine Walker, superintendent of the Hueneme Union School District near Long Beach. "They are now working as substitutes."
Is school closure a viable option?
Peplinski said the state should have "hit the pause button" before students returned to schools in early January. He said it would have been prudent to delay the start of school for a week to help school district leaders readjust to the skyrocketing caseload.
But now districts may have no choice but to temporarily close campuses. Late last week, San Diego Unified released guidelines and metrics the district would follow in determining when to close a school.
"We definitely want to do a school-by-school approach," said Barrera, school board president. "The schools are in very different locations."
According to San Diego Unified School District guidelines, schools may close during "COVID Impact Days" if a principal determines that he or she cannot safely supervise all students due to staffing shortages. Students will stay home as they do on hot, smoky days when being outside is not safe.
In the West Contra Costa Unified School District, the district reused two emergency smoke days typically used for wildfires last week to close schools as COVID-19 cases increased.
A school district in a fire-prone area may allocate several days in its academic calendar in the event of an emergency. Districts are not penalized for these days as long as they provide a total of 180 instructional days in a school year. But additional school closures could come at a high cost to districts.
If students are not on campus, they cannot be counted toward the district's attendance record unless they are placed in independent study. Loss of attendance means less funding for school districts, and adding instructional days to the academic year would have to be negotiated with local teachers' unions and create a host of logistical problems.
"We know that one of the options would be to close the school and add days later," Walker said. "We don't want to do that to our families and communities. People have their calendars set."
Adapting to COVID-19
But there is a fundamental question about whether schools should close or whether they should simply weather this crisis and keep students on campus, no matter how low attendance rates and staffing levels are.
Some teachers say that, although the current situation is far from ideal, it is far better than returning to distance learning, especially for students with high needs such as those with disabilities.
"We're on the edge, but we're doing it," said Alyssa Walton, a special education teacher at Grant TK-8 in San Diego. "Can we keep this up for long? Probably not."
Gandhi, the UCSF professor, said the state should prepare for COVID-19 to become a routine part of life, like seasonal flu. Closing schools now could set a precedent for future winters when the number of COVID-19 cases will inevitably rise again.
"I worry that in states like California, when we have more respiratory pathogens every winter, schools will be the places that close," he said. Considering the academic and mental health harms of school closures in 2020, he said it's worth the risk to keep schools open and learn to cope with COVID-19 spikes.
"I believe that of all the essential services that a society provides, schools are the most essential," he said. "Even during surges."
You may be interested in: Omicron puts Redwood City School District in check