East County School Shuts Down After Swarm of COVID Cases

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Some parents in Lakeside got unwelcome news Thursday from school officials.

The superintendent of the Lakeside Union School District, Andrew Johnson sent an email out on Thursday to families with a student attending Winter Gardens Elementary School, notifying them of several additional positive COVID cases among students at the school. There are just over 300 students and staff at the school normally.

"There have been 12 positive cases identified at Winter Gardens over the last two weeks, and in following the guidelines we have received from public health on school closures, we have decided to close the Winter Gardens campus for 15 days," Johnson wrote.

The closure began on Friday morning and -- due to the additional holiday break -- students will not return to Winter Gardens until Jan. 4. Johnson also pointed out in the email that the extended students services on the campus -- the school's 6-6 program -- would be shut down for the duration as well.

"That 12 number is very, very close to the 5% benchmark that the public health gives the school districts for closures, so we felt it was close enough and there were a couple of the cases [that] were, in the eyes of public health, epidemiologically linked, so there were strong recommendations to close the school," Johnson told NBC 7 on Friday.

Children who have not contracted the virus began distance learning on Friday and will continue with remote learning until they return to campus next year.

"I know it's tough for families to have to pivot back to distance learning," Johnson said. "I mean, today all the kids are in their distance-learning classes, so we know how to do that. That’s how we opened the school year in the beginning. But it's tough to keep pivoting back and forth. It’s a difficult situation for everybody."

While Johnson urged anybody who could confirm close contact with infected students to self-quarantine, he also pointed out that "public health officials have indicated that all of us should consider ourselves as being potentially exposed" and urged families to be vigilant in recognizing symptoms and following public-heath guidelines regarding facial coverings, social distancing and hygiene.

Johnson also said that staff and students who were known to have close contact with the sick students had already been put in touch with local public health officials.

Nicole Camacho has a son in kindergarten at Winter Gardens.

"I'm not surprised we're in the situation we're in," Camacho said. "I'm not too concerned about it because I feel the school has done such a good job of immediately getting things under control the minute they heard anything. I was disappointed because, obviously, it provides a little bit of a hiccup in our day-to-day life, but I was super happy they were handling it quickly."

Many districts, including San Diego Unified, the largest in the county and the second largest in the state, have not yet fully reopened campuses. Just this week, SDUSD announced, in fact, that a plan for a modified reopening in early January was being pushed back.

Winter Gardens is not the first campus closure prompted by the coronavirus. Several schools in the Vista Unified School District had to temporarily shutter schools in late October and early November after outbreaks.

Timeline: Vista Unified School District's COVID-19 Cases & In-Person Campus Setbacks

VUSD reopened its campuses for in-person learning on Oct. 20.

According to the district's schoool reopening plan posted on its website, many COVID-19 guidelines are being followed on campuses to curb the spread of the virus including enhanced sanitation, additional handwashing stations, and specific entrances and exits for those on campus. Students and staff are required to wear masks.

Oct. 23, 2020
A few days later, a student a Mission Vista High School tested positive for COVID-19, which sent 130 students and four staff members into a 14-day quarantine, as a precaution in case they had been exposed to the virus. The impacted classes shifted back into the distance learning model students and teachers had been using the month prior.

Oct. 25, 2020
On Oct. 25, a second student at Mission Vista High School tested positive for COVID-19.

As a result, at least 150 students and four administrators were told they would need to quarantine for 14 days because they may have come into close contact with the infected student. This came just days after the first case at this same high school sent 134 students and several staff members into quarantine.

Classes continued for the rest of campus. The district said the two cases at Mission Vista High School were unrelated.

VUSD said its decision to implement a 14-day quarantine for potential close contacts of COVID-19 positive students was done in accordance with something called the COVID-19 Decision Tree, a tool the district uses to keep track of any student or staff member in any of the following three categories:

  •  Students or staff members experiencing COVID symptoms
  •  Students or staff members who have had close contact with a person confirmed to have COVID-19 positive students
  •  Staff members who are COVID-19 positive

Oct. 27, 2020
The next day, two more coronavirus cases were confirmed within Vista Unified: one at Alamosa Park Elementary School and the other at Roosevelt Middle School.

At this point, there were four confirmed COVID-19 cases among VUSD students within one week of the district’s reopening of in-person classrooms. The district held a special meeting to discuss its situation.

The school board voted to suspect in-person classes at Mission Vista High School.

Oct. 30, 2020
Ten days into VUSD’s reopening of in-person instruction, nine students had tested positive for COVID-19 at seven different schools across the district, resulting in quarantine orders for more than 400 students and at least 17 teachers.

NBC 7 spoke with one of the teachers at Mission Vista High School who had been quarantined, 10th grade chemistry teacher Stacy McGuire.

McGuire said the classrooms were safe and we would return to campus in a heartbeat, if she were allowed. Here’s her story.

Oct. 31, 2020

VUSD confirmed its COVID-19 case total had jumped to 14 cases: 13 students and one staff member. This is how it broke down:

  • 3 cases at the high school level
  • 2 cases at the continuation level
  • 2 cases at the middle school level
  • 7 cases at the elementary school level

On Oct. 31, Vista Unified said it was closing three more of its campuses due to COVID-19 cases among students. Vista High School, Madison Middle School and Roosevelt Middle School would pivot to “Vista Virtual,” the district’s distance learning model, for two weeks starting Nov. 2. The campuses were expected to reopen for in-person learning on Nov. 12.

The district said it had come up with a four-layer testing framework but had yet to implement it at every school. In VUSD’s words, this broke down to:

Layer 1: We have implemented a mandatory testing rotation for all teachers and staff who work on every school campus in the district. It is our goal to have employees tested every 45 days.

Layer 2: We have developed a partnership with the Vista Community Clinic to expand mobile testing at schools throughout the district. This testing is available to parents, students, teachers, and staff.

Layer 3: We have joined the Safer at School Early Alert pilot that the University of California at San Diego is leading countywide to design a system of non-invasive COVID-19 testing of wastewater and surface particles for signs of the virus. This study includes voluntary testing of students and staff weekly.

Layer 4: We are in the final stages of partnering with the San Diego Health and Human Services Department and the City of Vista to open a high volume COVID-19 testing center in Vista for all residents, students, and staff members. The center will be open seven days a week and provide up to 800 tests a day.

Nov. 2, 2020
On Nov. 2, Rancho Minerva Middle School became the latest VUSD campus to close in-person instruction due to coronavirus cases. Students were expected to be able to return to campus Nov. 12.

VUSD also confirmed a COVID-19 case involving a student at T.H.E. Leadership Academy Elementary School. That campus remained open for in-person learning, but one 28-student classroom and its teacher were pivoted to the district’s distance learning model until Nov. 12.

As of Nov. 2, there were 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases involving students and staff across 13 VUSD campuses since the district’s in-person reopening of classrooms on Oct. 20.

Nov. 5, 2020
VUSD said it would delay the return of in-person learning for two of its campuses closed due to COVID-19 cases – Vista High School and Mission Vista High School – after hearing reports of hundreds of students attending at least two parties over Halloween weekend. The district said students attended house parties without wearing face masks or practicing social distance.

The campuses were supposed to reopen on Nov. 12.

Nov. 7, 2020
VUSD said the positive COVID-19 cases across many campuses had led the district to expand its safety measures.

VUSD said on Nov. 7 is was moving more classrooms outside. VUSD classrooms were already equipped with Hepa filters, but the district said it had also bought more than 1,000 fans for better airflow on campuses.

Other safety enhancements included purchasing and installing more Plexiglass barriers for students and setting up a COVID-19 testing site that would open in the coming days.

Nov. 10, 2020
By Nov. 10, there were 22 positive COVID-19 cases among VUSD students.

NBC 7 obtained charts detailing progress report grades within the district. The charts showed a significant rise in the number of D and F grades given to high school students at VUSD.

VUSD Superintendent Matt Doyle told NBC 7 the numbers were not final grades, rather progress report data for students as of the end of October.

VUSD continued to offer both in-person and virtual learning models and Doyle said there was not enough data to draw conclusions from either model in regards of a link to the progress report charts.

The board planned to discuss the progress report data at its next board meeting.

Nov. 11, 2020
On Nov. 11, VUSD and the City of Vista partnered with San Diego County to open a new, free, COVID-19 testing site in Vista.

The testing site opened at the Linda Rhoades Recreation Center. The school district said the site is part of its ongoing, multi-layered approach to expand testing for the community.

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