by Daphne Young
The first weeks back to school after the winter break have been extremely challenging for students, teachers, parents, the San Francisco Unified School District and health officials as collectively everyone works to get tested for COVID-19.
“I want to express my sincere gratitude for everything that SFUSD staff are doing,” said Dr. Vincent Matthews, SFUSD Superintendent. “This is the most difficult time our public schools have seen in over a century, and we must work together to serve our children and families while living with COVID.”
“I also want to thank our city agencies and the business community – everyone is lending a hand to keep schools as safe as possible so our students can learn in person,” added Matthews.
Since Jan. 2, SFUSD has partnered with Safer Together to make rapid testing available to the community at select school sites and SFUSD main office, at 555 Franklin Street in San Francisco. The district says this mobile rapid testing will continue to be available throughout January and SFUSD is working to continue rapid testing into February.
“We’re providing free rapid antigen tests to San Francisco Unified School District community members,” said Jenny Ton with Safer Together, a local public health non-profit that provides free COVID-19 tests and resources to San Francisco Bay Area residents.
Last weekend, on Jan. 9, I happened to stop by 555 Franklin Street. I found the crowd wrapped around the corner waiting to get tested. SFUSD parents, students, staff and faculty showed up on a Sunday to get a rapid COVID-19 test.
“We have had every single site for every day this week be completely full,” said Ton. “We’ve had lines at every single site from the very beginning of testing, until the end when we close down.”
“Our whole goal is to increase access and equity to testing, and to help ensure that families can have peace of mind and feel safe.”
According to SFUSD, this campaign is one of the largest COVID-19 testing efforts in San Francisco. The district says Color PCR testing continues to be available for all students and staff at school sites.
SFUSD said in a written statement that in the first week back after a two-week winter break, they have “administered nearly 5,000 rapid tests; processed 9,977 Color self-swab test kits; and distributed 2,200 at-home test kits.” Plus, the district says Color PCR testing continues to be available for all students and staff at school sites.
Superintendent Matthews adds that within the week every student and classroom teacher will have a take home test kit for use in the event they are symptomatic or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
SFUSD has announced that they are distributing over 60,000 at-home test kits to K-12 students along with tens of thousands of KN95 and surgical masks. Most of the kits were received from the California Department of Public Health late last week, but some local businesses have also helped to acquire testing kits and masks.
So, if your student attends an SFUSD school or you’re a SFUSD employee, you’re eligible to get tested or pick up a rapid antigen test. Testing is also being done at SFUSD school sites.
“The mental health impacts on students due to social isolation far outweigh the challenges of in-person learning.”
Just visit SFUSD to find out the dates and times for testing through the end of the month. At these sites you can also learn information about getting vaccinated or boosted.
SFUSD says the district continues to follow federal, state and local public health guidance and health experts have reiterated that schools have remained low-risk settings by following proper safety protocols.
“We want our staff and students to stay home if they are sick and to follow the public health guidance. Even as cases soar, we are committed to keeping schools open for those who can be there. In-person learning offers the best form of instruction for our students,” said Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews.
“In spite of the pandemic, our schools continue to be places where students receive free and nutritious meals; where they learn how to play an instrument and get involved in a sport; where they have their curiosity sparked and find joy in learning; and where meaningful relationships are formed.”
Both the San Francisco Unified School District and the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) support students being in the classroom versus at home and have set up multiple layers of health and safety protocols to help keep schools open this year, despite COVID-19.
“We must do everything possible to keep students safely attending schools,” said Dr. Susan Philip, San Francisco health officer. “The mental health impacts on students due to social isolation far outweigh the challenges of in-person learning.”
“As COVID-19 becomes endemic, we need to ensure everyone eligible gets vaccinated and boosted, we sustain our hospital capacity and protect the most vulnerable.”
Currently, cases are rising three times faster than during the summer Delta-fueled surge and further rapid increases are expected. As of Dec. 21, 2021, San Francisco’s COVID-19 seven-day average case rate was 398, surpassing the peak average during the Delta surge. While the hospitals currently still have ample capacity, the rate of hospitalizations has also started to increase but so far remains low compared to last winter.
“We do not want to wait until it’s too late to implement these measures to better protect our community,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco director of public health. “As COVID-19 becomes endemic, we need to ensure everyone eligible gets vaccinated and boosted, we sustain our hospital capacity, and protect the most vulnerable – these updates to the health order help us achieve that.”
This week Mayor London Breed announced the city would be donating an additional 150,000 KN95 masks for staff and 500,000 surgical masks for students. Masks and PPE continue to be provided to school sites and this week SFUSD is distributing over 73,000 KN95 masks for school staff, which is equal to more than a one month supply.
The business community and city are also working with SFUSD to secure more KN95s and KF94s so the district can keep staff equipped with daily access to these types of masks, especially those who are working directly with children in group settings. In addition to the KN95s, SFUSD is distributing over 650,000 youth and adult surgical masks and encouraging double masking per public health guidance.
During the Christmas holidays, in response to the sharp increase of COVID-19 cases driven by the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, Mayor London Breed and San Francisco Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax announced updates to the Safer Return Together Health Order.
Major changes include:
- The city’s alignment with the State to require boosters among workers in healthcare and high-risk settings – as well as some additional higher-risk settings not covered by the State requirements – by Feb. 1, 2022.
- A temporary suspension of the indoor universal mask exemption that allowed removal of masks for stable groups of 100 percent fully vaccinated individuals in certain settings.
- A requirement that attendees and staff of indoor mega-events are up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations, including boosters if eligible, starting Feb. 1, 2022.
“I appreciate this guidance from our public health experts on the importance of keeping our students safely in the classroom,” said Mayor London Breed. “We know how hard the last two years have been on our kids, and we need to focus on what’s best to support them, while also putting policies in place to ensure that everyone in our schools is protected.”
Experts add that students who participate in Test to Stay should also consistently and correctly wear masks while in school and should stay home and isolate themselves if they develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recently announced its support for an additional valuable tool in school settings as part of its layered prevention strategy rolled out called Test to Stay. The new test combines contact tracing and COVID-19 testing that is repeated at least twice during a seven-day period to allow asymptomatic school-associated close contacts who are not fully vaccinated and do not test positive for COVID-19 to continue in-person learning.
But experts add that students who participate in Test to Stay should also consistently and correctly wear masks while in school and should stay home and isolate themselves if they develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19.
The State of California also recently announced that workers in healthcare and certain other high-risk settings must receive a booster by Feb. 1, 2022. San Francisco’s revised order conforms to the updated State Health Order and extends the booster requirement to other designated higher-risk settings that are already covered by San Francisco’s previous requirements for personnel in those settings to receive their full initial series of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Also, personnel working in high-risk settings who are eligible for a booster and have not yet received one must be tested once or twice a week for COVID-19 – depending on the setting – and provide proof of a negative test until one week after they receive a booster. Due to the threat Omicron poses to hospital capacity, eligible personnel in high-risk settings are strongly urged to receive their booster as soon as possible before the deadline.
The health officer will be updating school and youth-related directives to require masks for participants in indoor youth sports, through Jan. 31, 2022.
“Our residents have shown time and time again that they understand the importance of protecting public health,” said Mayor London Breed. “Thanks to our high vaccination rates we are in a much better place than last winter, but there is real danger out there for those who are unvaccinated,” Breed added.
“We will continue to focus on taking the steps necessary to deal with this latest surge of cases, while also keeping our businesses open and keeping our kids in school, which is so important for our young people and their families. Do your part and get yourself and your family boosted so we can all continue to protect each other in the weeks and months ahead.”
Health officials say when rates of COVID are high in our communities, cases will appear at schools, just as they do in other settings. However, with effective health protocols in place, data shows that these multiple layers of defense can stop the spread of COVID in school settings. So, getting vaccinated and boosted, testing after travel and gatherings, staying home when sick and wearing well-fitted masks are key elements to keeping schools open for in-person learning.
“San Francisco has remained vigilant and beat back four surges, and we are well positioned with a highly vaccinated population to do the same with this current surge due to Omicron,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco director of public health.
“Throughout the pandemic, San Francisco schools have remained low-risk settings by following proper safety protocols – let’s work together to keep it that way.”
In relation to schools, the updated health order also clarifies that based on the demonstrated effectiveness of measures that reduce the risk of transmission in school settings, including the requirement for universal masking indoors, the use of rapid testing and vaccinations for children aged five and older, the health officer strongly believes that schools can and should remain open for in-person classes for all grades.
The order strongly recommends that teachers, staff, and administrators in K-12 schools be up-to-date on vaccination, including boosters. The health officer will be updating school and youth-related directives to require masks for participants in indoor youth sports, through Jan. 31, 2022.
Updates to the health order will be available at: https://www.sfdph.org/dph/alerts/coronavirus-healthorders.asp.Meanwhile, SFUSD and the SF Public Health Department are urging families and schools to continue following recommended protocols to keep schools, students, teachers and staff safe.
Safer return to school recommendations include:
- All students and staff are recommended to get tested for COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status 1-2 days before returning to school or work, even if they are asymptomatic.
- If families or staff have traveled over the holidays, SFDPH recommends testing 3-5 days after returning from travel.
- If any students or staff test positive, please notify your school immediately and follow isolation and quarantine guidelines: https://www.sfdph.org/dph/COVID-19/Isolation-and-Quarantine.asp. Individuals who need assistance with isolation can connect with the COVID Resource Center at (628) 217-6101.
- COVID-19 testing sites and resources: https://sf.gov/find-out-about-your-covid-19-testing-options
- San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) specific testing resources: https://www.sfusd.edu/covid-19-response-updates-and-resources/covid-19-surveillance-testing-students/covid-19-testing-locations-and-dates
- Stay home when sick
- Students, teachers and staff who have symptoms of infectious illness, such as COVID-19 or the flu, should stay home and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care, regardless of vaccination status.
- Everyone who is eligible (currently open to age 5 and above) for a COVID-19 vaccine should get vaccinated and stay up to date with boosters (currently open to age 16 and above if enough time has passed since their initial vaccination).
- COVID-19 vaccination sites and resources: https://sf.gov/get-vaccinated-against-covid-19
- Face coverings
- A well-fitted mask that can be comfortably worn is most important.
- Double masking is an effective way to improve fit and filtration. A close-fitting cloth mask can be worn on top of a surgical or disposable mask to improve the seal of the mask to the face.
- Additional masking resources: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/Get-the-Most-out-of-Masking.aspx
More information on the modified quarantine guidance is available here https://www.sfdph.org/dph/covid-19/isolation-and-quarantine.asp#school. For additional COVID-19 resources, visit https://sf.gov/topics/coronavirus-covid-19 or stop by the SFUSD website: Returning Safely to School in 2022 | SFUSD.
The bottom line is that there are many precautionary measures that are being taken by health officials and SFUSD to help keep schools open and help limit severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
But, as parents and SF residents, we need to do our part as well to stay healthy and keep our kids in school and learning. Students cannot have a repeat of last years’ distance learning debacle.
So be sure to find one of the COVID-19 sites near you that SFUSD and Safer Together have set up to offer free testing and rapid antigen take home test kits. Keep in mind, this Omicron variant is going around and spreading like a wildfire. So, protect yourself and your family. Everyone be well, be smart, and stay safe and healthy.
Daphne Young is the Education Reporter at the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper. The Chicago native is an award-winning journalist who’s covered news for radio and TV stations around the country. She attended San Francisco State University and is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. If you have an education story that you’d like to see the Bay View cover, please contact Daphne by email: email@example.com.