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For CUSD, it’s a waiting game to see impact of Omicron

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com
On December 21, the last time the COURIER checked in with Claremont Unified School District on its COVID numbers, the Omicron variant was still an unknown.

My how this exasperating virus can change things in a hurry.

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Los Angeles County reported an astonishing 44,710 new COVID cases over the recent holiday weekend, most driven by the new variant.

The week prior to New Year’s Eve saw testing sites and hospitals overrun, a grim reminder of the deadly surge that occurred last winter, which peaked with 229,977 new cases reported nationwide on January 12, 2021. That number was obliterated on Monday, January 3, 2022, when a grotesque 1,003,043 cases were reported.

And unfortunately, Omicron’s sudden virulence apparently took even county health officials by surprise.

“Honestly, it’s my opinion that the county was caught — not by anything they did wrong — but was caught [off guard] by the severity of the uptick in cases as we approached New Year’s Eve,” said Claremont Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Wilson. “Their messaging did not get intensified until the end of the week. So even they, as they got to the end of the week, weren’t ready for this.”

Wilson received an email the morning of New Year’s Eve from Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo calling for a superintendents’ meeting to discuss the implications of the surge with her agency and the county department of public health at 8:30 a.m. Monday, January 3.

Following receipt of that email, Wilson contacted Assistant Superintendent, Student Services Brad Cuff and asked him to set up a CUSD testing clinic as soon as possible, which turned out to be Sunday, January 2. More than 1,100 students and families availed themselves to the testing event.

Wilson was pleased with the turnout, but some parents have questioned its timing, just one day prior to schools reopening after the two week winter break. Results from Sundays tests will not be available until Tuesday, January 4 at the earliest, two days of after some 6,800 students returned to classrooms.

“Essentially the timing happened because of the lateness of that surge and the fact that the county was scrambling to get us individual [rapid home] tests, and we wanted to offer one more opportunity for folks to have their kids tested,” Wilson said.

The goal of the testing event was to get a snapshot of the new, Omicron-driven positive COVID cases that if trends in the district align with the county at large, are likely to swell following holiday travel and gatherings.

Wilson praised district personnel, who pulled together the testing event on short notice. Asked about the timing, he said one of the main roadblocks was many of the key players who organized the event were out of town for the holidays.

He also said as of early last week, prior to the New Year’s holiday, the county’s new positive case numbers hadn’t yet risen to the crisis levels they are at now, with that astonishing 44,710 on January 2. Indeed, L.A. County reported 7,409 new COVID cases on Monday, December 27, followed by 9,451 the 28th, 16,483 the following day, 20,169 on the 30th, and 27,037 on New Year’s Eve.

Some have wondered if the Omicron surge and the accompanying crisis its created at area hospitals continue, could CUSD schools again close to in-person instruction?

“We can’t do that,” Wilson said. “We don’t have a mechanism, unless somebody declares a state of emergency I believe, to just say ‘We’re closed.’ There’s a lot of moving pieces to that. We’re doing everything we can to provide the safest environment possible while also operating under the strictness of the law, and contracts and things like that that we have in place.”

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told Wilson on a phone call Monday, “while this is the worst surge we’ve ever seen, it is their intention to keep schools open. So, right now, as of [Monday] morning at 8:30, while we’re in the middle of this surge, there’s no intention at this point to close schools.”

The 80 local school districts in Los Angeles County are really ultimately controlled by the state, which possesses the legal authority to order school closures in response to a public health emergency like COVID-19.

Wilson said the only scenario he could envision that would cause him to seek that authority would be if there was a significant, targeted, isolated outbreak within CUSD. At which point the district would immediately initiate a call with the county supervisors, the county office of education, and the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

“The next step beyond that would be of course working with our board of education,” he said. “We would likely have to call some sort of a special meeting. I’m speculating here. But we would not make that decision in a vacuum.”

Los Angeles County had been somewhat unique in that its guidelines were stricter than some surrounding jurisdictions, such as Orange County. Over time, that has changed, Wilson said.

“I don’t see L.A. County Department of Public Health necessarily taking some of those bold steps without having state backing.”

At press time CUSD’s COVID dashboard had last been updated at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, January 2, reflecting new COVID cases reported over the winter break, but prior to the testing event held later that day.

Chaparral Elementary School held steady at five; Condit gained two new cases, for 26 on the year; Mountain View reported one new case for 12; Oakmont held at nine; Sumner Danbury added 11 new cases, for 35; Sycamore added four, for 11 on the year; and Vista del Valle added two, for 13. El Roble Intermediate School saw 10 new infections, for 31; CHS added 17 case, bringing it to 97 on the year; and San Antonio High, inexplicably, remained COVID free.

As always — and it’s especially true this week — new case numbers can fluctuate up and down based on the latest reporting. The district’s COVID dashboard, at https://claremont-ca.schoolloop.com/covid, is updated as new information comes in. Please check there for the latest figures.

Meanwhile, on Sunday evening, January 2, Claremont High School Principal Brett O’Connor sent a mass email to hundreds of parents and caregivers that read, in part, “Please keep your child home if they are sick or have any symptoms. The only exception is if your student is fully vaccinated with a booster.” About an hour later he sent a clarification stating, “Please keep your child home if they are sick or have any symptoms. Vaccination status does not matter.”

“First of all I will say that we trust our principals to accurately communicate with the parent community,” Wilson said. “They have multiple communications weekly, so no, we don’t automatically vet everything that goes out from a principal.”

Wilson said O’Connor’s initial email — which could have led parents to believe it was okay to send COVID symptomatic students to school — was not what he intended to write.

“And he corrected that. Humans do make mistakes occasionally in their communication.”

The Omicron surge has resulted in two new protocol changes coming down from Los Angeles County, which it has two weeks to implement:

One, that staff and teachers must now wear the common blue paper surgical, or the more robust N95 or KN95 masks, with the more porous cloth masks no longer an option. The district is the process of procuring the masks to get in compliance with the new edict. Wilson said there is no plan he’s aware of at this point for the county to require students to adhere to this new rule, but that it could be a next step.

The second is that students wear their masks correctly — with a tight fit, and always covering the nose and mouth — both indoors and in crowded outdoor settings.

The district had 76 staff members — out of about 800 — call out sick on Monday, January 3, Wilson said. It was unclear what portion of that number, which on a typical Monday would be about 60, was due to possible COVID infection or exposure, Wilson said.

“It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “We’re paying very close attention. We’re trying to provide timely information to the public. And we’re keeping in very close contact with the public agencies at the county level.

“Everybody’s working very, very hard. All of the pressures trickle down and trickle up as well, and we have to be mutually supportive of one another. So there is an impact, but we’re holding up pretty well I’d say.”

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