Home Education Policy Teaching during a Covid surge

Teaching during a Covid surge

California students returned to classrooms this month amid a spike in Covid cases and changing protocols from the state. Some districts are running out of substitutes to step in for sick and quarantined staff. Teachers and students in some schools are demanding more Covid testing and calling for the distribution of better masks for teachers and students.

Teachers share what it’s like to be teaching during a Covid surge.

Transcript:

Anne Vasquez:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director at EdSource. California students return to classrooms this month amid a spike in COVID cases. That has caused concern, you might even say chaos, in school districts. Some are running out of substitutes to step in for sick and quarantined teachers. While parents, staff and district officials argue over safety protocols. As a parent, I receive emails almost daily about COVID alerts at my children’s schools and what I need to do to ensure their safety. It’s hard to keep track of it all and let’s face it, the disruption has affected everyone in some shape or form.

Zinia:

I’m scared. I’m scared for the kids and their younger siblings and their elderly family members.

Anne Vasquez:

How districts handle these disruptions make all the difference. Teachers in some schools are demanding more COVID testing and calling for the distribution of better masks for teachers and for students. How can we all, those inside and outside of the classroom, navigate educating children during these uncertain times? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee:

When Zinia Gangopadhyay came back from winter break to teach fifth grade at Acorn Woodland Elementary School in Oakland, she was nervous. COVID 19 began to surge in California in December, and she knew many families had taken trips during winter break or had seen more family and friends.

Zinia:

So we returned to school on Monday, January 3rd, and some students were already not in school because of either positive test cases or someone at home might have tested positive. And as the week progressed, we started to become even more nervous because students were starting to get positive test results at school.

Zaidee:

Another thing changed that made Zinia and many of her colleagues even more uncomfortable. One of the main things that she felt good about before the winter break was that if there were more than three cases in one classroom, it was considered to be a possible spread within the classroom. And therefore the whole class would have to quarantine.

Zinia:

I felt fairly safe August through December. Particularly because of this threshold. Knowing that I think really made both families and myself feel more comfortable in that knowing like, okay, if it’s one or two, like we’re in a pandemic, this may happen. But at the point where we hit three that notifies both families and us that like, okay, this is time to shut it down because it’s like happening in the classroom at that point. Right?

Zaidee:

But in January, the threshold changed. Actually it disappeared. Now, no matter how many students test positive in a class, the other students can continue coming to school as long as they get tested twice a week and remain negative.

Zinia:

And this made a big difference because if that hadn’t changed our classes in fifth grade at Acorn Woodland would’ve both been shut down.

Zaidee:

COVID 19 is still hitting low-income communities, Latino communities, and African American communities harder than others. More than 90% of the students at Zinias school are from low-income families. And a lot of them tested positive after winter break.

Zinia:

You know, based on my classroom and my partner teacher’s classroom, so the fifth grade at Acorn, a quarter of our students, so one in every four,. Actually had a positive case of COVID. And nearly half of our grade was out for various COVID related reasons. So someone in the family was positive or families were nervous about sending their children back because of COVID safety.

Zaidee:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week, teaching during a COVID surge.

Zaidee:

With so many kids absent and so many testing positive Zinia is worried.

Zinia:

I’m scared. I’m scared for the kids. I am fully vaccinated, I’m boosted. But I worry about my own family members. I really worry about our kids and their younger siblings and their elderly family members. So it’s very scary and it’s hard to focus on teaching. It’s hard to focus on what’s happening in the classroom.

Zaidee:

And even when she can focus on teaching, it’s hard to know how or what she should teach.

Zinia:

If half of our students are out, like, do we continue with the curriculum as is? Do we stop teaching? How do we provide supports for the students who are learning from home?

Zaidee:

With all that’s going on? Zinia wanted to know how her students were coping. So she checked in with them.

Zinia:

We have like a, we sit on the carpet in a circle and students get some time where they can share with a partner, how they’re feeling. And then they get an opportunity to share in front of the whole class.

Zaidee:

Overwhelmingly the students said they don’t feel safe.

Zinia:

They were like, you know, I was sitting next to this friend yesterday and now they’re not here anymore. What happened? And it’s just a really scary feeling I think for so many of the students.

Zaidee:

With both students and teachers feeling increasingly unsafe at school, things came to a head. More than 1,200 students in Oakland signed a petition for the district to provide KN95 masks for every student, twice weekly COVID tests for everyone on campus, and more covered outdoor spaces where students can eat when it rains. And then this Tuesday teachers from three schools in Oakland, including Zinia, held a one day sickout to protest the way the district, the county, and the state are handling the COVID surge. Teachers in Oakland and San Francisco also held sick outs last week.

Zinia:

We’re really following the lead of the student organizers. This is what we’re hearing from middle and high school students. And they’re concerned. And for us, I would say that returning to the three case threshold feels really important and significant. Also making sure that we have enough KN95 masks for all students and staff across all OUSD sites. And I think at some sites they’re asking for better outdoor eating measures. So making sure that things are covered and kids can safely eat outside and regular testing. So twice a week, testing, rapid test, PCR testing. One thing to make clear is that none of us want to return to virtual learning. That’s not the goal we want to be in the school building safely. However, it doesn’t feel safe right now.

Zaidee:

My colleague Diana Lambert has covered how schools are struggling to stay open during this spike in COVID cases. Hi Diana.

Diana:

Hi Zaidee. How are you?

Zaidee:

I’m okay. My kid is right now at home from preschool because they had an exposure.

Diana:

Oh my God. That’s awful.

Zaidee:

So what have you been seeing statewide? It seems like Omicron is everywhere. And we know that it’s kind of chaos in schools.

Diana:

It is. I mean, the last week was really hectic for schools. A lot of schools considered closing because of the high COVID rates. Most did not. And then we had a lot of teachers and other staff members out sick and administrators in the classroom taking their spots. And in some cases, kids were shuttled into like gymnasiums or auditoriums so that one teacher could handle a class of even two or three classes at a time.

Zaidee:

Wow. That doesn’t seem very safe?

Diana:

Yes. A lot of teachers are agreeing with you. And they’re wanting to have upgraded masks. They want the KN95 masks. They want additional substitutes. But districts just can’t find any substitutes.

Zaidee:

You know, are there enough tests for people and enough masks, enough supplies?

Diana:

No there aren’t. Tests particularly are really, there’s a big shortage of tests right now. But school districts generally will offer tests to the students. So they’re in better shape than most people. They can go to their school district and get tested.

Zaidee:

And how are districts responding to the concerns of teachers and students and families?

Diana:

Well, Oakland’s a good example. Because Oakland today students are saying they’re gonna walk out. They had 1,200 students sign a petition because they want more safety measures. They want the KN95 masks. And the district sent out a press release saying they’re supplying KN95 masks. They got an order of 200,000 and they’re gonna pass those out to students. So I think the districts are responding as quickly as they can, frankly. I mean, they only have so many masks and tests, but they’re trying to get those out. But some districts aren’t giving out KN95 masks. And I don’t know if they’re trying to. But yeah, so there’s more demand for that. And we may see more of those coming out in the next week or two.

Zaidee:

Do we know how many teachers are absent?

Diana:

Well, I don’t know how many. It varies from school to school, but it’s not just teachers too. It’s the bus drivers, and the cafeteria workers, and administrators even who are out. But it’s bad every district. Any district will tell you that they don’t have enough substitutes to fill all the classrooms. And administrators are daily in the classroom. Some school districts even close the district office for a day so that everyone can go out into the classroom. So it doesn’t look good. But as long as they can keep enough teachers there, the schools can stay open.

Zaidee:

Allison Peredes is one of those teachers who had to miss school because of COVID this month. Allison teaches kindergarten in San Diego Unified. She returned to school January 3rd, only to test positive later that day. Then she had to stay home for five days.

Allison:

So my kiddos had a different sub each day. So there was no continuity for them. And you know, they’re the little ones I’m with kindergarten. And it was tough. It was tough. It was hard on the kids. It was hard on me.

Zaidee:

But it’s not just Allison who’s been absent at her school.

Allison:

We’ve had three to four teachers out every day and we’re a small school of only 16 teachers. And then we’ve also had additional staff members out, you know, para educators and things like that. Ed specialists. Teachers are really helping each other out, making copies for of them or covering, some teachers are giving up their preps when needed for a colleague. So I think the word has just been flexibility and patience and grace has kind of been what we’ve had to really lead with this school year. And particularly after winter break.

Zaidee:

When they couldn’t find a sub for one class, another teacher had to take over that class in addition to their own.

Allison:

The model that we use is that two classes would move to a bigger space like the auditorium or cafeteria or something like that. And that teacher was responsible for overseeing both classes in that space. And then we’ve had all of our resource teachers get pulled. So, you know, students who normally would be receiving intervention services, those teachers are pulled first to go cover a class because they are trying to minimize combining large groups. So unfortunately it’s interfering with the intervention, reading intervention. Students with IEPs are missing their service hours.

Zaidee:

Allison is also worried about those students who have missed a lot of school.

Allison:

Some of them are on their third or fourth quarantine, either from a family member or a classmate. And so you start to worry, obviously, as we have since the beginning of pandemic, about learning loss. So, you know, in kindergarten we do so much in a day, we’re teaching kids to read. So it’s some really important instruction that they’re missing.

Zaidee:

So Diana, some schools have actually closed their doors for a few days or for a week at a time. I know there was a charter school here in Oakland that closed because they just didn’t have enough teachers. What other school districts or schools have closed?

Diana:

Well, Hayward closed for just the week but they’re back now. There’s not a lot that have gone out. Some have gone out for a day or two, like South Lake Tahoe went out for like Friday. And I think they’re out today and coming back Wednesday. So everyone’s just trying to close for just the shortest period of time they can so they can get staffing. So, I mean, another check today may find that others have been out, but so far it looks like people are hanging in there.

Zaidee:

Partially this has to do with the state policy, right? Because the state policy changed in terms of California doesn’t allow distance learning anymore. Is that right?

Diana:

Right. So now you can only close a school if you have staffing shortages. You are allowed to close for that reason because you have to have enough adults in the room. You’re not supposed to close just because of infection rates, unless your county health department allows you to do that.

Zaidee:

Okay. And if you do close for one of those reasons, you can do distance learning for that time?

Diana:

Well, they still call it independent study.

Zaidee:

Okay. And my understanding is that there could be a difference between independent study and distance learning in that independent study would likely be at least probably less simultaneous instruction and that kind of thing.

Diana:

Exactly right. So they would be more likely to be take home work and checking in with the teacher, and working from a Google classroom, things like that. So they wouldn’t have necessarily instruction with the teacher online.

Zaidee:

Can you share with me a little bit about what some of the teachers that you spoke with, you shared with you? What they told you about what it’s like and their concerns and what they’re doing in the classroom?

Diana:

Yes, I can. You know, teachers, I think overwhelmingly are just, I wouldn’t say afraid, but being careful and they’re afraid for their students. And what they’re doing is adapting their coursework to make a it more safe. So I spoke to this teacher, his name is Keith Carames, and he’s at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco. And he’s a drama teacher. So right now he’d be doing an adaptation of a fairy tale with his students. They’d be acting it out in class, but because he doesn’t want them to get infected or take off their masks, instead they’re doing shadow puppet theater. And usually they’d also be acting out scenes from the Crucible right now. He said, instead they’re analyzing the play and they’re making scenery. So he is trying to find ways that they can work independently, social distance, and not take off their masks. But he says it’s impossible to teach drama with the mask on. So he can’t ask them to do any acting.

Zaidee:

And you spoke with other teachers, I think in San Jose.

Diana:

Well I spoke to Erika Cedeño who teaches Spanish in Santa Clarita Valley International School in Castaic. And she says that, and this is a project-based learning charter school. So everything is done in groups. So that’s really hard for her. So instead she says the kids will discuss poetry, say, this week by Antonio Machado. And they will talk about it on their own computers. So sitting in the room on their own computers, doing group discussions, instead of sitting in groups and doing group discussions. So she’s had to adapt her lessons too. Another thing she said they’re doing is they’re doing recipes. So they’ll go home, they’ll make a recipe, and then videotape themselves making the recipe and talking about it in Spanish. And then they share those in the classroom later on their own computer. So she’s doing all she can to keep her kids distant amd still do project-based learning.

Zaidee:

Okay. So more distancing in the classroom, and some outdoor classes too, right? Right.

Diana:

Right. So Victoria Canote in San Jose Unified, she really is concerned about COVID. And she has taken her kids outside as much as she can to do their lessons, just to keep them safe. And keeping them at a distance in the classroom as well, because what people don’t realize is once we came back into classrooms and we stopped doing hybrid instruction, we have full classes now. 27, 30 kids or more in a class. And it’s really difficult to keep them at a distance from one another.

Zaidee:

I’m laughing because I’m thinking about my four-year-old’s preschool class. You know, you can’t really keep little kids separate. Fortunately older kids you can sometimes keep separate, but the preschoolers are hugging each other, holding each other’s hands, playing together, jumping on each other.

Zaidee:

My four-year-old missed a day of preschool this week of a possible exposure. My twelve-year-old is continuing to attend seventh grade, but she asks me every day if I think her school will close. She doesn’t want to go back to distance learning. Diana says teachers shared that some other students feel the same way.

Diana:

Erika Cedeño a teacher in San Clarita Valley, she said that her students were away from each other, social distancing, not sharing snacks because they’re so fearful of going back into distance learning. No one really wants to do that teachers and students alike.

Zaidee:

Part of what the pandemic has been so hard for so many people, including, as a parent it’s been really hard. Just as a person. You know, it’s been really hard, partly because we don’t know what’s next. So Diana, where do we go from here? This is such a strange moment.

Diana:

Well, you know… who knows? Next week if staffing shortages continue and the Omnicron variant is still surging, schools may have to close. If there just aren’t enough teachers, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers to keep it open. But if the surge relents and people step up and volunteer and come in and sub schools at they may all stay open.

Zaidee:

Right, I heard that Palo Alto schools were asking parents to come in and volunteer.

Diana:

Palo Alto and Sacramento City Unified both sent out pleas asking parents to come and volunteer and to sub if they have the right credentials. Which would just be a bachelor’s degree and passing the basic skills test or have taken specific courses. And then volunteers who have been fingerprinted and gone through the background check can also come in and volunteer.

Zaidee:

Wow. Thank you so much for being with me Diana.

Diana:

Thanks, Zaidee. I appreciate it.

Zaidee:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Ecuation Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. A production of EdSource. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to Zinia Gangopadhyay, Allison Paredes, Diana Lambert, and our director Ann Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the Silver Giving Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week. Of course, subscribe so you won’t miss an episode.

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