San Diego schools could have ‘COVID impact days’ due to staff shortage

Coronavirus

SAN DIEGO — As teachers and other staff members miss work due to the resurgent coronavirus pandemic, San Diego’s largest school district is warning that principals may need to call “COVID impact days” or otherwise modify class schedules.

San Diego Unified School District explained the potential measures in an email to parents Thursday evening. A district spokesperson said that schools “plan to use every available option to keep classrooms open.”

It won’t always look like a typical school day, however. The district says that students will “very likely” experience one or more of the following over the next few weeks:

  • Class work in a learning lab or study hall-type environment
  • Classes moved outdoors, weather permitting, or into large indoor spaces
  • Instructional time replaced by self-paced activities
  • Supervision by substitutes or “centralized personnel” (principals have at times had to rely on administrators and other district employees to lead classrooms, with substitute teachers in short supply)

Some campuses have already taken one or more of the measures listed above. “Again, these are temporary measures required by the pandemic, and employing these strategies will allow us to keep classrooms open,” the district said.

When all else fails, and a principal “determines it is unsafe to continue with in-person instruction due to severe staffing shortages,” they may declare a “COVID impact day” for their school, the district said.

“They’re not going to be learning the same way and I’m afraid that it will affect every student here at school,” parent Mary Rodriguez said. “I have a child with ADHD and it makes it harder for him to learn at home, so I need my son to be able to come to school.” 

Not unlike a snow or heat day, kids would stay home and not receive direct instruction. Parents will be informed ahead of time by phone, email and online announcements. Food distribution and “support for students in crisis” will still be available.

“Last week I had two teachers out and then I had three teachers out, so half of my day was with substitutes or different teachers,” said Lidia Melchor, an 8th grader at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School. “I think in-person school is way better than online, but I think if it’s necessary then they should do it.”

The decision to call COVID impact days will come from individual principals on a school-by-school basis. Campus leaders will consult with the district, county health department, and the county and state’s education departments before making the call.

“No one should anticipate any district decision to return all students across the city to online learning,” the email emphasized. “Rather, San Diego Unified health leaders will consult with their County colleagues in order to establish an appropriate threshold of positivity rates above which they do not advise the continued operation of a particular school facility.”

The district has a COVID-19 dashboard that shows the current number of student and staff coronavirus cases. As of Friday morning, the information was current up to Jan. 8 and showed 648 “active” cases among school employees.

The district said the following measures are already in place to try to avoid more drastic changes to the school day:

  • All departments have canceled “non-essential” activities that remove teachers and staff from classrooms, such as trainings and professional development
  • A rapid return-to-work testing station is intended to clear employees quickly after positive tests or exposure
  • Canceled “non-essential” indoor activities (field trips, school assemblies, dances)
  • Delivered thousands of N95, “or similar style,” masks to schools and expanded mask enforcement

The district is also urging families to get all parents and students ages 5 and older vaccinated. You can find a free COVID-19 vaccine site in San Diego through this county website.

In its email, San Diego Unified acknowledged the role of the omicron variant in driving current case rates. The new strain is highly transmissible, but early studies show it is less likely than previous variants to make people severely sick.

“We are encouraged by the advice we have received from medical experts predicting that the current COVID-19 surge is a temporary situation,” the spokesperson wrote. “However, we cannot afford to be complacent. It is clear the new variant is highly contagious and has infected thousands of children nationwide already.”

Despite that, the district repeatedly stressed its desire to keep some form of in-person learning in action.

“We continue to believe that school is the best place for students to be,” the email reads. “This has been demonstrated by multiple studies showing students are actually safer in school than in communities where the virus is widespread.”

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