December 8, 2022

Just days before K-12 students return to school from winter break, California’s education and state leaders are scrambling to adapt to the surge in COVID-19 cases that could dramatically impact classrooms in the new year.

Most agree that keeping schools open at the start of the school year and minimizing missed school days is the best option for student success. So school leaders are expanding access to COVID tests, vaccinations and masks to keep kids safe while they wait for promised shipments of at-home tests from the state.

Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin said his district has become “a testing machine” and has succeeded at keeping kids safe so far, but he said parents and educators should expect the impact from the highly contagious omicron variant could be more challenging than ever for schools in the next few weeks.

“We’re going to have cases,” said Austin, who said there is “no doubt” every school district should be prepared for higher numbers of cases in the coming weeks.

While school districts are following different strategies before welcoming students back, most are focused on expanded testing. How that will work is still an open question. The Bay Area News Group asked school leaders from across the region how they’re preparing and what parents should know before sending their kids back to the classroom.

CASTRO VALLEY, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 29: Parvin Ahmadi, superintendent of the Castro Valley Unified School District, hands out free at-home COVID-19 antigen tests to parents of students preparing to return to school next week, during a drive-thru distribution, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, at Canyon Middle School in Castro Valley, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Are students required to be tested before returning to school? If so, where can they get tested?

Most schools have no testing requirement, but they are recommending students test for COVID-19 before returning to the classroom in January. San Jose Unified, San Ramon Valley Unified, San Lorenzo Valley Unified, Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified are either offering families at-home tests to take over the weekend and first week of school or opening sites for COVID-19 tests at local schools.

What do I do with my kid’s at-home test results?

Some school districts like Oakland Unified have their own COVID-19 testing programs for any students and staff that would like to take an at-home test over the winter break. Oakland officials sent students home with a test kit containing two rapid tests and instructed students to take their first tests on Friday and second test on Sunday before returning to class Monday. Parents can pick up tests from their schools and upload their results to the district’s online portal.

Counties are also chiming in to help record test results. Marin County has an online form for families to self-report their results from rapid antigen at-home tests.

What is the state doing to help?

Gov. Gavin Newson and state education leaders have touted that the state is rapidly deploying at-home test kits to millions of school kids to make it easy for families to get their kids tested.

But just days before the New Year many schools reported they hadn’t received them yet and they’re unsure whether they’ll be able to distribute them before end of winter break. To fill the need, districts are encouraging families to use the testing systems they already have in place.

SAN JOSE, CA – OCTOBER 14: Juan Carlos Esquivel, 5, of San Jose, gets a COVID-19 test by Gardner Health Services nurse Delmy Escobar during a free COVID-19 testing offered by the School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Will Governor Newsom’s promised at-home tests arrive before school resumes?

It’s still unclear when students will get the at-home tests from the state. The California Department of Public Health said it hopes to have them in students’ hands during the first week of school. State schools superintendent Tony Thurmond visited a Castro Valley middle school Friday to help distribute home test kits to student families.

San José Unified received a shipment late last week and was arranging for students to pick up an at-home test Sunday and Monday before school resumes Tuesday, said district spokeswoman Jennifer Maddox.

San Ramon Valley Unified officials requested 30,000 at-home test kits from the state, and the district hoped to receive them to distribute to student families before school resumes Jan. 11, said Ilana Samuels, a district spokeswoman. That district also added an additional free testing site over the weekend.

“What I can say with certainty is that we are doing everything we can that is within our control to make this happen, as we want to ensure all of our students have access to testing before they return to school,” Samuels said.

RICHMOND, CA – NOVEMBER 9: Registered nurse Cristina Bunggay, left, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Miranda Rodriguez Molina, 6, as her mother Xochitl tries to calm her down during a school-based vaccine clinic run by the Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS ) at Nystrom Elementary Auditorium in Richmond, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. The COVID-19 vaccine is now available for kids ages 5-11. The kickoff vaccination is the first in a series of mobile vaccine clinics held by CCHS. The flu shot was also available. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Do school kids need to be vaccinated to return to school? If so, where can they get vaccinated?

Gov. Newsom’s statewide COVID-19 vaccination mandate for all students and staff in public and private schools will not go into effect until the semester after the vaccine receives full approval from the FDA, no earlier than the fall of 2022.

But some East Bay schools are speeding ahead and requiring students to get vaccinated in the next several weeks. Oakland and West Contra Costa Unified school districts are requiring all students ages 12 and up to get fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Parents still have some time to meet the vaccination deadlines, but schools are recommending children get vaccinated as soon as possible. The deadline at Oakland Unified is Jan. 31 and the deadline at West Contra Costa is Feb. 18.

Both districts have set up vaccination sites for students at local school sites and say they will disenroll unvaccinated students from in-person learning and automatically enroll them in virtual learning programs if they don’t meet the deadlines.

Students at San Jose Unified, San Francisco Unified and San Ramon Valley Unified aren’t required to get vaccinations or booster shots just yet. School leaders there are encouraging all students and staff to get vaccinated and recommending they get booster shots for the new semester.

How long do kids have to quarantine or isolate if they test positive or are exposed to COVID-19?

Before the winter break, most districts were following state requirements directing students to isolate or quarantine for 10 days if they test positive for COVID-19.

But late last week, California health officials adopted new federal guidance that shortened the recommended COVID-19 isolation and quarantine period from 10 days to five for people who had tested positive but are symptom-free and test negative after five days. Schools are expected to shift to that shorter timeline, as well.

Students exposed to someone with COVID-19 are required to be tested and may have to isolate from other students for a few days depending on their test results and whether they are symptomatic. The amount of time varies.

COVID: How are Bay Area schools confronting the omicron winter break surge?