Though the United States is well into its third school year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest surge still seems to have caught many districts off guard. School systems across the country are reporting some of the highest numbers of positive cases since the pandemic began.
During the first week of classes following the winter break, Boston Public Schools (BPS) reported 1,787 positive cases of COVID-19, including staff and students. To put that in perspective, BPS reported 539 cases for the entire 2020-21 school year. Since Portland, Oregon, schools resumed classes on January 4, nearly 3,150 students and over 560 staff have had to isolate, due to either confirmed or suspected COVID infection. Those numbers for Portland may be low, as there is a backlog in data entry. Meanwhile, as of January 29, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were tracking 4,186 positive cases; 686 staff and almost 19,000 students were in quarantine. In the 2020-21 school year, Chicago had 1,975 reported cases among staff and students.
The day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, a fifth-grade student in Chicago teacher Lauren Walsh’s class took an in-school COVID test. The results did not come in until Friday — and the student tested positive. By many reports, these sorts of delays are common. Waiting for notifications from the district’s contact tracers can take even longer.
A spokesperson from CPS said that test results are emailed to staff and students within 24 to 72 hours. But Walsh says the contact tracers didn’t notify her about the exposure until almost a full week after the student was tested.
It was lucky the student was even registered for random weekly testing. At Walsh’s school, only about 21 out of 306 students are currently signed up for testing, she says. CPS has insisted on using an opt-in policy for testing, wherein each parent or guardian must consent to have their child tested in school. Earlier in January, the Chicago Teachers Union advocated for universal opt-out testing, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot called “morally repugnant,” despite the fact that many other Illinois school districts have such a policy. The district has struggled to sign students up for testing; as of January 31, just over a third of students were enrolled. That is, however, a big improvement from the numbers in late November, when less than 8 percent of students were enrolled. At that time, dozens of schools had just a handful of students registered.
Walsh says the onus to urge students to sign up has fallen largely on teachers. Teachers can volunteer to reach out to parents and guardians after school — reading a script aloud, obtaining consent and then registering the student for testing. “At first they didn’t want to tell us that we were supposed to be getting paid to do that,” she says. “Then I found out that you can get paid your hourly rate to do it after school, and I was like telling other teachers, ‘Don’t do this unless you’re getting paid.’”
Walsh was referring to the agreement that the Chicago Teachers Union approved on January 12, which stipulates that bargaining unit staff who volunteer to serve on phone banks to facilitate vaccination efforts are supposed to “receive the non-instructional rate of pay for time spent phone banking outside of their regular workday.”
The agreement also stipulates that a staff person at each school should serve as a student testing and vaccination participation captain, and that the person who serves as the captain should receive an additional $1,000 stipend.
In a statement to Truthout, a CPS representative affirmed that the $1,000 stipends are being offered to “captains” and clarified that school principals “can request a second Captain, allowing two staff members to split the role and the stipend,” but pushed back on the idea that additional teachers working to increase the opt-in numbers would be paid for their efforts, writing: “Teachers are not paid for submitting these consent forms.”
Walsh’s school is using Color Health, Inc. to handle the testing. It’s one of the two companies involved in a testing snafu that happened over winter break — when 24,986 out of 35,817 tests taken by CPS staff and students were rendered invalid due to shipping and weather-related delays.
Color Health is also used by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which faces a different set of challenges. On January 13, the unions representing SFUSD workers signed an updated health and safety agreement with the district. The district agreed to provide weekly access to testing at every school site for all students and staff who requested it. Cassondra Curiel, the president of United Educators of San Francisco, one of the district’s six unions, says that although there are a sufficient number of tests, there are major barriers for students to access them and then to receive the results.
“Right now, there are barriers for families to register the actual test on their mobile device or online,” she says. In order for a student to know their test results, they need to set up an account through the Color Health website, which ties the test to them. Curiel says some families are getting error messages or can’t access the website in the language they need. “So, if you go pick up a test to take, you can swirl it in your nose and follow all the rules and drop it off,” she says. “But if you can’t electronically attach that test to yourself, then it won’t have that marker, we won’t know who it’s from, and it won’t report the result.”
Since the beginning of this semester, which started January 3, more than 4,100 SFUSD students and teachers have self-reported positive cases. In the entire fall semester, there were 647 total positive cases.
Curiel also says that the district needs to put out more communication so that students and parents know about the resources available to them — not just weekly testing, but also free N95, KN95 and KF94 masks. “One of the big challenges about testing is that if you don’t know you can, you won’t,” Curiel says.
In a statement, a spokesperson for SFUSD wrote, “We routinely send families information via phone, email and text message about numerous ways to get tested,” noting that there is also a support line that families can contact if they need assistance with their Color Health account.
However, Curiel believes the district’s communications fall far short; for example, it could be more proactive about getting rapid tests to students during any holiday. Over winter break, San Francisco residents did not receive the at-home tests promised by Gov. Gavin Newsom until after classes had already resumed.
“Best practices show over and over again that a rapid test to enter a situation would actually help prevent the proclivity of such a contagious spread happening inside the classroom,” Curiel says. “We knew that, despite all of the mitigations that we do have, which we’re trying hard to implement all the time, there would inevitably be in-school spreading. The virus does not do a U-turn when it sees the word ‘school’ on the building.”
In Seattle Public Schools (SPS), the extra work that comes with testing and adhering to health and safety protocols is one of the biggest challenges for educators. Rapid antigen testing is available at each school site, and PCR testing is available for staff and students who are experiencing COVID symptoms. “It’s not really so much about the test availability; it’s about the workload that comes with testing,” says Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association. “It’s all this added workload, no additional staff.”
Matter says that there is actually fewer staff than normal, due to lowered enrollment and the surfeit of vacant positions that haven’t been filled. She says it’s been difficult to even find substitute teachers. Because SPS were remote for a year and a half, Matter says teachers and staff are already doing a lot of extra work in terms of providing support for students, who are getting acclimated to in-person socializing and learning. “We just have these positions that are going unfilled and people having to work the extra hours because the work still exists, and it has to be done,” Matter says. In January, when the district added the option of rapid testing, schools faced “more work with not enough staff.”
Much of the work of testing and contract tracing for Seattle’s 106 school sites falls on school nurses. There are 68 full-time nurses in the district. Seven of those are now doing contract tracing full time, along with 12 other staff members.
“I think the frustrating thing through this whole experience is it often feels like nobody’s listening,” Matter says. “We’re working with students directly. We are in the buildings in these classrooms doing this work day in and day out. And yet our voices are constantly ignored. That’s where I see the role of the union … to elevate educator voices so that they’re being heard.”