Over 40,000 students returned to Sacramento City Unified schools this week amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases. The first day of school saw at least 500 students quarantining after reporting positive test results during the holiday break.
Hilary McLean, a spokesperson for SCUSD, said more than 1,200 of about 18,000 COVID-19 tests conducted between Jan. 3 to Jan. 5 across the district came back positive — almost 7% positivity rate among students and staff.
“We’ve continued to stay very committed and we continue to provide tests to all of our students, to family members, to staff members,” SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said on CapRadio’s Insight Jan. 6. “We’re still concerned about the surge in this variant and positive cases.”
The district distributed 38,000 at-home COVID-19 tests to students, prioritizing students who were younger and ineligible for the vaccine. But testing accessibility has decreased as more and more people test positive for COVID-19, increasing the risk that students who don’t know they’re infected could spread the virus. The first outbreak in the Sacramento region happened in a Yolo County high school.
In October, SCUSD — the 13th-largest school district in California — announced a vaccine mandate, given Sacramento’s lower vaccination and higher COVID-19 transmission rates. The soft deadline for students and staff to either file an exemption or report that they had received at least their first dose of the vaccination passed on Nov. 30. After that, the district began “targeted outreach” to those who hadn’t done either and mandated unvaccinated individuals get tested for COVID-19 weekly.
After Jan. 31, students who have not submitted proof of full vaccination or gotten an exemption approved from the district will be moved to independent study. Staff who have not done either could face disciplinary action. (You can read more about the mandate here.)
Aguilar appeared on CapRadio’s Insight to address the uncertainty of in-person class, the district’s response to COVID-19 surges, updates on the district’s vaccine mandate and more.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
On the possibility of moving back to remote learning
We saw a new order this morning from [the] Sacramento County Public Health Department moving meetings into an online virtual setting now, instead of in-person, so things are moving very, very rapidly.
It would be premature for me to have a definitive response. The one thing that I've learned through this pandemic is that everything is changing day to day, these are ever-changing conditions. And the best that we can do is stay very proactive, very vigilant. We still believe that the health and safety protocols that we've put in place, that K-12 systems put in place are working.
We just have to remain vigilant. It feels like it's the beginning of the academic year when we all made a very, very deep commitment to make sure that parents understood what those protocols were, that students understood what those protocols [were], that our teachers, that our staff understood what those protocols [were] and we're going to continue to stay focused on those issues.
On planning ahead and avoiding day-to-day decision-making
We have of course been in touch, meeting very closely with Sac County Public Health, with the county office, with other superintendents in the region … I was in meetings with other superintendents, we have begun to share a lot of best practices around, for example, home test kits. We were very glad to send out our communication strategy from over the winter break — the text messaging, the reminders, the instructions, translated into different languages. This is a very, very fluid situation. And of course, we are depending on one another, to understand what the challenges and opportunities look like on the ground.
The other risk is the staffing shortage. We are seeing a lot of vacancies in both certificated, set classified positions. We had just today, as of 8:20 in the morning, 332 substitute requests for our certificated [employees] or teachers. We have about 202 among classified substitute employees as well. That is a higher number than what we've been accustomed to. So we're monitoring that, our principals are in classrooms. We are doing everything we can at this time to continue to provide in-person instruction to our students. I've also been in touch with some staff at the Capitol.
On testing availability
We're at over 109,000 COVID tests that we've administered. And, of course, that doesn't count the home tests that we sent out over winter break to our students.
We have doubled up and are going to stay committed and making sure that testing remains available. At every one of our school sites, we have care rooms. Thankfully, we built the infrastructure very early on, to be able to provide tests to students and to staff at each of our school sites.
At this point, we are plentiful in terms of the tests. So we do not anticipate that we are going to have to make any adjustments at this time to the test availability, both at our school sites and at our district office, at our regional test site as well. Again, we're working very closely with Sac County Public Health and the county Office of Education.
We’re not in a position where we had to start something new. Instead, we're just refining and improving. We've had some hiccups. Our lines went out to 47th Avenue on Monday [testing at the Serna Center]. On Tuesday, we had individuals that showed up earlier than expected at Albert Einstein Middle School. So we're making a lot of refinements and improvements. The last thing we want is for families to have a negative experience as they're trying to be proactive and trying to protect our community overall.
On the protocol when a student tests positive
We've now changed our contact tracing protocols. And I'm hopeful that our community will continue to show us some patience and some grace. We're not able to continue the kind of contact tracing that we were doing before. Instead, now, when a student tests positive, we are notifying the entire classroom.
There's both quarantine for students who come into contact, depending on their vaccination status, there's recommendations and guidance related to staffing. We want to see some of those recommendations also mirrored [with the CDC], so that from a staffing perspective, given the staffing challenges, we're able to also provide quarantining guidance that allows us to go back to work as quickly as possible, depending on the vaccination status … So we all expect that Cal/OSHA, [the] CDC, CDPH and eventually Sacramento County Public Health or local public health agencies will be able to provide that kind of clarity.
On the progress of student and staff reporting vaccination or exemption
That number is just over 50% now for our students and almost 80% for our staff. We are still processing some of those forms and some of the information for data integrity purposes. But we are about a week away from our next board meeting, where we will present the most updated data. Our staff were very busy over the winter break, making sure that we continue to do outreach to both families or students, to our staff, about the importance of this.
On expanding the vaccine mandate to students ages 5-11
That has always been a topic because it always has been a question both for our board and as representatives for our community. What we have continued to do and will continue to do is provide vaccination clinics as we're doing right now. Our students who are much younger are also eligible. We have 11 more clinics scheduled between just this December and January, we have more to come. We've done 56 vaccine clinics, which again, I'm very proud of our team for coordinating, almost 25,000 vaccines have been distributed.
On potentially shifting the Jan. 31 vaccine mandate deadline
We will have a discussion at our board meeting about that particular vaccination mandate deadline. We have about 1,000 cases that we still have to process that are in our system right now. And we have, similarly, several hundred for our staff. We're still getting about 150 submissions every day. So we're hopeful that, particularly given the current surge of COVID, that our parents are continuing to do more research, that they're continuing to work with their medical providers to get information that they might still be seeking about the safety of the vaccination against COVID.
It's a consideration. But at this point, my hope, again, is that we will continue to see the results of our outreaching to families to our staff members, and we'll see an increase in vaccination rates. Certainly, the consideration of independent study as an alternative educational platform for those students who choose not to get vaccinated, who also don't submit an exemption to us and also don't register for testing, that is the educational platform that would be available to them.
On how this may affect students and the district’s well-being
I wake up every morning and I'm very anxious about that. I just saw an email earlier today from a principal who said how difficult this has been in his 10 years as a principal. I'm hearing that over and over not just from our site leaders, but from our teachers, from our district staff. This is a situation that is just ever-changing. (...) But I am very anxious about the mental health and the well-being of our adults as much as I am about our students. This is a situation where, maybe in the future, we'll see even the longer-term effects of what we have had to endure as adults, just as we're starting to see the long-term effects that our students have had to endure. We're just going to have to remain committed to making sure that we do everything that we can to address those needs.
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