CSBA webinar highlights lessons learned about reopening schools during COVID-19

Dr. Naomi Bardach, team lead for California Safe Schools for All, gave an update on the status of COVID-19 in the state as well as lessons learned this back-to-school season during the CSBA webinar “Governing in a Time of Chaos: Board Meetings in the age of COVID and CRT.”

Bardach was one of nine panelists at the Sept. 13 event, which included advice from CSBA leadership, board members, attorneys and communications experts on preventing and handling unruly situations during board meetings.

As the pandemic drags on and the delta variant continues its rapid spread throughout the country — the variant accounts for 90 percent of California infections and 93 percent in the U.S. — guidance for local educational agencies has been balancing two major goals: keeping students safe and keeping them in school.

“Schools, of course, right now are planning and actively doing mitigation efforts because we’re in this elevated time,” Bardach explained.

Measures like vaccinations and masking are making a difference. Compared to Florida, Texas and the U.S. as a whole, California had been able to keep hospitalizations among children low in recent months.

As of Sept. 12, there were far fewer school closures in California than a number of other states that do not have mask mandates, actively prevent mask mandates or have lower vaccination rates, according to Burbio’s K-12 School Opening Tracker.

A layered approach to school safety — including having as many students over age 12 vaccinated as possible, testing and staying home when sick, wearing masks indoors, practicing good hand hygiene, and improving indoor air quality and using outdoor space — was highlighted by Bardach. She noted that emergency use authorization for a vaccine for ages 5-11 is expected by late fall.

Those safety steps may be more important now than ever as the delta variant is more than twice as contagious as previous variants.

Early observations from fall

Bardach listed six patterns that have been found as schools reopen:

  1. School-associated cases (cases found in school testing) are often caused by non-school social events. Examples include a high number of cases at a suburban high school following a back-to-school party and multiple rural high schools in a community experiencing positive cases following attendance at a local fair.
  2. Cases caused by symptomatic individuals who went to school while sick. According to Bardach, there have been two outbreaks associated with individuals (adults and children) coming to school with symptoms that led to transmission on campus.
  3. Questions on quarantine and funding related to independent study. “To support instructional continuity for students in quarantine, a package of statutory amendments intended to clarify and strengthen student learning during quarantine was passed,” Bardach’s presentation reads. Updates to quarantine recommendations were published this month by the California Department of Public Health. For modified quarantine, Bardach advised LEAs to expand testing to meet recommendations, establish seating charts or stable groups to help limit and track exposures, and to use CDPH’s Decision Tree.
  4. Staffing shortages caused by low rates of vaccination among staff. Bardach reported that multiple schools with vaccination rates estimated below 70 percent among staff are reporting staffing shortages.
  5. Expanded demand for testing to prevent outbreaks. Multiple school districts have a desire to ramp up testing immediately, but the required lead time is currently slower because of a national surge in testing demand.
  6. Schools adjusting to modified quarantine practices; contributing to keeping students in schools.  The Burbio tracker suggests that testing, modified quarantine and vaccination are likely all working to keep schools open, explained Bardach.

Continuing to take advantage of state resources for testing, vaccination clinics and more will be important as demand ebbs and flows.

A recording of the webinar and the meeting’s slide deck are available online now.