Despite recent state health guidance potentially allowing local schools to welcome back students in less than two weeks, officials are cautioning that the return to classrooms at Napa County’s largest public school district will not move ahead until it can regularly test more than 2,000 employees for the coronavirus that has shut down campuses for nearly six months.
California’s recently created four-tier, color-coded rating system for COVID-19 spread places Napa County in the “red” category, one level above the “purple” status marking counties with the highest rate of virus transmission. The other levels are orange for counties with a moderate number of new virus cases, and yellow for counties with minimal spread.
Because Napa is above the bottom rung, local schools may return to in-person instruction once the county has remained in the red tier for two weeks – starting Sept. 14.
However, education and health officials on Wednesday cautioned that invitation comes with a major caveat set by the state Department of Public Health. School districts that reopen must test at least 25% of staff members for the coronavirus every two weeks, ensuring that each teacher, aide, food-service worker, janitor or other employee is screened at least once every two months, according to guidance by the state agency.
With Napa County lacking the capacity to take on such a case workload from local schools, the Napa Valley Unified School District would need about $40,000 a week – the estimated cost of about 250 tests – to support the number of COVID-19 screenings needed to meet the requirement for in-person teaching, according to Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti.
Should Napa County’s infection rate rise again and push it back to the “purple” category, NVUSD would not be required to shut down campuses again wholesale, but would have to double its testing rate to 500 workers a week, Mucetti said Wednesday, a day after school superintendents from across the county took part in a conference call with the county’s Health and Human Services agency.
The Napa district remains in the first of four phases in its reopening plan, having taught all courses online since the academic year began Aug. 20. No date has been announced for a move to the second stage, in which children and teenagers would visit their classroom one or two days each week. (The remaining phases would bring students to campus for five half-days either in the morning or afternoon, followed by a return to a full five-day, whole-day schedule.)
“Public school systems do not have the infrastructure to test 500 employees a week,” Mucetti said. “We need to problem-solve this with our county officials in order to advance to phase two.”
Daily capacity at the state-funded COVID-19 testing centers operated by the county is currently about 250 to 350 tests, five days a week, according to Public Health Director Dr. Karen Relucio.
After a period in which surging test demand and a growing number of infection pushed the period from testing to results as far as three weeks – longer than the typical two-week self-quarantine period – results are coming back to Napa County residents in five or fewer days, usually two or three, Relucio said Wednesday. Nonetheless, she added, school districts “need a back-up plan” if existing channels are again strained by testing demand.
Relucio said Napa County also will follow state guidance on COVID-19 cases in schools and call on campuses to close if 5 percent of the total number of students, teachers and other workers test positive within 14 days. If one-quarter of all campuses in a district shut down, the others also will close.
Also affecting schools’ ability to return to in-person teaching may be a much smaller supply of substitute teachers than before the pandemic.
The Napa County Office of Education, which supplies substitutes for public schools across the county, normally has a roster of about 400 fill-in teachers, but only 160 people have responded to the agency’s survey seeking reserve instructors for 2020-21, according to NCOE superintendent Barbara Nemko. Of those, about 30 percent have declined to teach on-campus, the department’s human resources director John Zikmund said Thursday.
Furthermore, Nemko added, some substitutes may be in more vulnerable categories in the pandemic, and it remains unclear how roving short-term teachers fit with safety recommendations that a teacher stay with a single group of students during a school day to minimize the chance of viral spread.
“Our substitutes run the gamut; some are older, some have underlying conditions,” she said. “As a substitute, you don’t stay with one cohort of children, which is how we would reopen the schools for regular teachers.”
Nemko predicted a slower road to reopening for school systems with multiple campuses, compared to private schools that need only to test a single group of employees working at one location.
“Parents see a date and they think, ‘Great, you can be open by the 14th,” said Nemko. “And maybe many private schools can open by then, but those are individual schools. We’re looking at whole school districts, and it’s a very different dynamic. What’s most important is that we are very, very vigilant in making sure that opening schools does not increase the problem. So we need to do it right.”
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You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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