As San Diego County students return full-time to classrooms, various districts are reporting a growing number of COVID-19 cases among staff and students.
In a marked difference from last year, however, districts are now implementing new contact tracing and quarantine protocols. Meanwhile, parents are being forced to adjust to the new rules.
“COVID is the new reality, and we have to learn how to deal with it, how to manage it effectively while keeping our students and staff safe,” said Christine Paik, chief communications officer with the Poway Unified School District.
Poway Unified is distinguishing two classifications of cases.
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‘School based’ cases involve students who have been on school sites, potentially creating a site-related exposure. ‘Community based’ cases happen off-campus when students have not made any contact at school sites.
As of Aug. 20, Poway Unified reported 48 school-based cases, and 70 community-based cases. The majority of cases, 40, have occurred in the three days since most students returned to schools last Wednesday.
Poway is hardly alone in its case count.
A random check of several other districts' COVID-19 dashboards also show an increasing number of cases.
The Chula Vista Elementary School District, for example, has reported 195 student cases in August. There have been 31 cases involving staff in the district.
The Vista Unified School District has reported 43 cases among students and staff at its schools.
In Poway, 10 cases were reported at Valley Elementary School, which returned to classrooms on Aug. 2.
Among the students now quarantined is Lili Husseman’s 10-year old son, Nicholas.
“You kind of throw your hands up because you want the kids desperately to be back learning how they learn best, but, yeah, it’s a tough situation, and it’s not going to go anywhere anytime soon,” Husseman said.
According to Paik, guidelines set by the state health department last year required students to be quarantined immediately. But, she said, the state recognized the policy was keeping kids out of school too long. Now, the state has issued new guidelines depending on the vaccination status of those infected.
“Close contact tracing is just the beginning, then figuring out quarantine options for families and students, that’s the next step and that’s where it gets complicated,” Paik said.
Poway Unified's current guidelines for unvaccinated cases call for a 10-day quarantine. That person can return on the 11th day if they are asymptomatic.
A quarantine for an unvaccinated case can lasts seven days if there is a negative test result. The person in question can also stay at the school site if they undergo twice-weekly testing, three days apart, over a 10 day period.
For cases among vaccinated people, no quarantine is required as long as the student is asymptomatic. If there is a positive test, full home isolation for 10 days is required regardless of vaccination status.
Paik has this strong advice for parents.
“Do not send kids to school if they’re having any sort of COVID symptoms," Paik said. "Stay home, and if you can, get tested."
But for Husseman, whose quarantined son is now learning from home, the logistics of getting a test can be challenging. She said that parents need to be aware of their options.
“We just need to make accommodations to get things back as easily and as safely as we can,” Husseman said.
Husseman said another challenge for quarantined students is the unavailability of virtual learning.
Poway Unified currently does not provide virtual learning for full-time students who are quarantining, though about 600 students are currently signed up for a virtual curriculum.
Meanwhile, Anthony Millican, who is the director of communications and community development for the Chula Vista Elementary School District, provided the following statement to NBC 7:
"Our district offers a robust COVID-19 testing program. In fact, we’ve been operating one of the busiest testing centers in San Diego County as a service to our students and staff while we waited for the county’s sites to ramp up again.
We repeat over and over our theme of Testing, Tracing and Vaccination—keys to keeping schools open."