School Boards in Action: LEAs need support for contact tracing and testing to keep kids in school

By Ty Alper

I am president of the Berkeley Unified School District school board — a California district that is doing everything it can to keep students in school, even as positive cases increase. It’s possible and we are doing it. But it requires one big thing: To keep students in school, we need a massive testing operation, one that is wildly expensive, and completely outside the skill set of a public school district.

Here’s why: California public health regulations allow unvaccinated, asymptomatic, masked children to stay in school on something called “modified quarantine,” even if someone they are in close contact with tests positive — so long as they test negative twice a week during the quarantine period. On the other hand, if close contacts of students who test positive are not vaccinated and do NOT get tested twice a week, they must quarantine at home.

So, to keep young, unvaccinated children in school, we need them on modified quarantine when other children with whom they come in contact test positive. To do that, we need to test them — twice a week throughout the quarantine period. Older students who are vaccinated can stay in school as long as they are asymptomatic — so we also need all eligible students to get vaccinated.

Bottom line: we can keep children in school if we have enough tests and enough trained staff to administer them. If not, we won’t be able to keep them in school. Hundreds, probably thousands, of kids in other California districts are home on quarantine.

Right now, Berkeley USD is managing to keep kids in school. We have over 500 students in school currently on modified quarantine, and only a handful at home on full quarantine. That’s over 500 kids who would be home were it not for our testing regime. But anything that undermines our ability to implement this testing regime will likely result in children staying home from school on quarantine. And we are getting buried by the human and financial resources that the testing requires.

Berkeley USD has already hired 17 full-time staff (only seven of which the state is providing additional funding for), including nurses and testing technicians; we are looking to hire more. Implementing this massive testing regime requires more than just people administering tests.

It requires staffing a call center, including nights and weekends, to rapidly deploy testing staff to school sites when a case is reported. It requires detailed contact tracing and staff to send out timely communications to affected families and notifications to teachers.

And it requires mundane — but critical and time-consuming — data entry to track the quarantine and vaccination status of every student who comes in close contact with a student who has tested positive. For older kids, that is potentially hundreds of classmates per positive case.

Public school districts in California have not been given sufficient resources to take on this challenge, and it’s not anything we have ever done. We are committed to doing whatever we can to keep children in school this year, but it is increasingly clear that we cannot do it alone. We can keep children in school, but only if we do it as a community, and only if we have sufficient resources. Our district is fortunate to partner with the City of Berkeley, on which we will continue to rely as we tackle this public health challenge together.

But we also want to sound the alarm. Other districts are far worse off than we are. The state needs to step up. To keep students in school, which we all want to do, the state must provide sufficient resources for testing and contact tracing.

Please help us keep kids in school.

Ty Alper is the president of the Berkeley USD Board of Education and a professor at Berkeley Law.