How is Berkeley High Responding to the Omicron Variant Surge?

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Jerome Paulos

In the past few weeks, over 300 students attending Berkeley High School (BHS) tested positive for COVID-19, due largely to the surge of the Omicron variant and increased rapid testing in Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). The BHS administration has worked to add precautions, attempting to lower the number of COVID-19 cases and keep instruction in-person.

On January 8, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens shared a brief stating that BUSD schools will stay in-person through the Omicron surge. 

In the month of January so far, there have been 821 positive COVID-19 cases in BUSD, with 301 of these results coming from BHS. These case counts resulted in 12 percent of the BUSD student body being absent on January 10, which went down to 10 percent later that week.

In response to the increase in case rates, BHS recently began testing students during their English classes, as well as offering after-school testing, with the goal of testing every student twice weekly. On Wednesday, January 26, Principal Juan Raygoza said that BHS tested 960 students, finding seven positive cases. 

BUSD also purchased 40,000 KN95 masks to distribute. Teachers and students received two of these masks in class this week and were told to make them last for two weeks total. 

BUSD was able to provide data about the number of teachers across the district who were absent for any reason. The graph displays data from every Wednesday since October 6, 2021.

Jerome Paulos

Additionally, BHS expanded the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a booster shot while urging all students and staff to get the vaccine. Around 92 percent of BUSD staff have received vaccines, while somewhere around 80 percent of Berkeley students over the age of 12 are vaccinated. 

Dr. Arthur Reingold, a professor and division head of epidemiology at the University of California (UC) Berkeley School of Public Health, has had experience working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and said there are benefits and risks to keeping schools in person.

“The upside to keeping school in-person is we think that it’s better for education, it’s better for socialization, it’s better for all kinds of things at that end of the spectrum. … The downside, of course, is that these can be places where viral infections like this can be transmitted from one person to another, if people aren’t very, very careful,” Reingold explained. 

Last year, around the middle of January, California experienced a surge of COVID-19, with a weekly average of about 44,000 cases. Presently, California has a weekly average of about 120,000 cases. Despite the current high  case rate, the mortality rate last January was much higher, with a weekly average of about 500 deaths compared to 103 now. This decrease in serious illness is mostly a result of the high number of vaccinated people, as well as the new variant. 

However, Reingold said hospitals all over the US have continued to be overburdened by the Omicron surge despite the lower mortality rate. He attributes this to the fact that 40 percent of the US population isn’t fully vaccinated.

“Even though on average [Omicron] produces a milder illness, even a tiny percentage of people with COVID-19 who end up going to the hospital, to the emergency room … [makes] it hard for hospitals and health care,” said Reingold. 

BUSD put a policy into place on January 3 that requires all students over the age of 12 to be fully vaccinated or receive weekly COVID-19 tests. The district is also working with Berkeley’s public health department to increase at-home and in-person testing. Superintendent Stephens shared the participation data of at-home tests over winter break with the Jacket.

“63 percent of our student population participated in the at-home tests, which is a much stronger rate than the state. I understand that the state participated in the at-home tests at about a 20 percent rate,” said Stephens.

Approximately 12,000 kits, containing two COVID-19 tests each, were issued to BUSD students before winter break.

Jerome Paulos

The increased accessibility to at-home tests enabled Jennifer Campbell, a psychology and sociology and world history teacher, to identify her positive COVID-19 test over winter break. She contracted COVID-19 twice throughout the pandemic but said her second experience took less of a toll due to her vaccination. 

“In some ways, it was sort of okay. I’m getting vaccinated, boosted, [and I’m] super healthy … so it was so much less stressful,” said Campbell.

Campbell’s experience of contracting COVID-19 has not been rare, as teachers continue to catch the highly transmissible Omicron variant. This has caused repeated absences for BUSD staff, particularly among newly hired teachers, and has generated immense pressure on the administration. 

“We’re right now seeing staffing shortages unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. We have double digit absences among our teachers every single day in the district,” said Stephens. “It is most acute at BHS, where we’re seeing somewhere between a dozen to about 18 staff members out and uncovered every single day.”

These staffing shortages have made it increasingly difficult for schools to remain open as teachers continue to test positive for COVID-19 and are forced to self-isolate, leaving classes unattended. 

Teachers, specifically new hires, are leaving their positions mid-year, according to Matt Meyer, the president of Berkeley’s teacher union, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT).

The administration and Berkeley Public Health Department have expanded the accessible vaccine sites, adding to the precautions put in place to keep schools open. 

“I would encourage anyone who isn’t vaccinated to get vaccinated. I think people at this point who are refusing vaccination, whether they’re famous tennis players or quarterbacks or whatever, they’re making a mistake,” Reingold said.