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San Diego Unified schools will stay closed indefinitely while coronavirus testing and vaccinations scale up

San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten is given a coronavirus test on Jan. 12.
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten is given a coronavirus test by nurse assistant Malaysia Major on Jan. 12 as part of the district’s testing program.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Unified School District officials again held off on setting a potential date for reopening schools because COVID-19 cases and deaths continue their relentless growth.

But progress is being made on two key efforts San Diego Unified needs to reopen in-person instruction — vaccinations and coronavirus testing, officials said at a board meeting Jan. 12.

Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician who is advising the district on reopening, said he hopes all school staff will be able to get vaccinations in a few weeks and all willing school staff may be vaccinated by April.

San Diego Unified said early last month that it would release a new reopening timeline Jan. 13, after canceling its original plans to open for in-person instruction this month.

But Superintendent Cindy Marten indicated Jan. 12 that the district will not open for in-person instruction anytime soon and did not give any potential dates.

“Despite the progress that is being made and all of the best efforts of all of our employees, it’s important that we recognize that the virus continues to spread and it’s out of control in our communities,” Marten said.

“The fact that we’re losing 4,000 of our fellow Americans to this disease every day is shocking and something we must all continue to attend to. This is not the time to let up on our efforts to defeat this deadly virus.”

San Diego Unified and several other area school districts that have not reopened are not allowed to under guidelines by Gov. Gavin Newsom that say schools cannot reopen for in-person instruction while their county has a coronavirus case rate above 28 per 100,000 residents.

San Diego County’s adjusted rate as of Jan. 12 is 69.7 per 100,000.

As school closures continue, many students are suffering with failing grades, depression and anxiety, inadequate internet and other challenges, experts and parents warn.

Vaccinations

Vaccinations for school staff working onsite will be crucial to reopening San Diego Unified campuses, officials said.

“If there’s a possibility over the next six weeks we get all educators who would be on campus vaccinated, that will make a big difference in our ability to open up and stay open,” district board President Richard Barrera said in an interview last month.

But the vaccine rollout has been slow nationwide and in San Diego County. Thousands of doses are waiting to be administered to those in the first phase of vaccine prioritization.

In California and San Diego County, that means health care workers and long-term-care residents are getting vaccinations. San Diego County is in Phase 1A, which also includes school staff members who work onsite with symptomatic staff or students, such as school nurses, health technicians and front office staff, Taras said.

As of Jan. 8, 58,000 out of roughly 500,000 San Diego County residents who are eligible for Phase 1A had been immunized, according to county officials.

All other school staff will qualify during the first tier of the next phase, 1B, which now also includes people 65 and older and people at risk of exposure who work in food and agriculture and emergency services.

At least 1.1 million people in San Diego County will be eligible for Phase 1B, Taras said, not including those 65 and older.

No COVID-19 vaccine has yet been approved for children younger than 16. That means it’s likely that children will not be vaccinated by the start of the next school year, Taras said.

Children likely will still be required to wear masks and classrooms will still need to have reduced capacities of fewer than 25 or so students in a class to maintain social distancing, he said.

There likely will be parents who choose to keep their children home and learning online until kids can get vaccinated.

“Long-term planning should consider these things well into the next school year,” Taras said.

School testing

Experts and district officials say frequent, routine coronavirus testing for students and staff can allow school systems to reopen safely even when community case levels are high.

But school testing has yet to be funded or provided by the state, leading a few school districts, including San Diego Unified, to establish and fund their own testing programs.

San Diego Unified is in its second week of testing and so far has administered 175 tests to staff and students, said Susan Barndollar, the district’s program manager for nursing and wellness. The students are participants in the district’s current Phase 1 of reopening, which provides in-person support to a limited number of struggling students.

During the first week of the testing program in mid-December, the district provided tests at 10 schools. At those schools, 39 percent of onsite staff got a test, while only 7 percent of onsite students did. All the tests came back negative.

The testing is voluntary and requires signing up in advance, which Barndollar acknowledged has caused “delays and issues” in getting people registered.

“Our goal is to increase student participation and we’re supporting that at the site level,” Barndollar said.

The district’s coronavirus testing program is free to any staff members and students working or learning onsite. Eligible staff include teachers working with students in person as part of Phase 1, as well as food service employees, bus drivers and other staff not working from home, Barndollar said.

The district is introducing testing at 10 additional schools every week and expects to be offering testing at all schools by mid-May, Barndollar said. High schools and schools in neighborhoods heavily affected by COVID-19 will get testing earlier than others.

Once testing is offered at a school site, the school will continue offering it until the end of the school year June 11, Barndollar said.


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