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COVID numbers falling at CUSD, but is Omicron BA.2 is on the way? — podcast

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

It’s certainly refreshing to be able report things at CUSD are heading in a positive direction with respect to COVID, with just 16 new cases recorded this week.

But with the new Omicron BA.2 variant just beginning to take hold in the US, perhaps it’s not yet time to celebrate.

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“We all know how quickly that can go,” agreed Claremont Unified School District Assistant Superintendent, Human Services, Kevin Ward, referencing the late-December to early-January Omicron surge that saw hundreds of new cases reported week-to-week across CUSD.

Still, all metrics make it clear the original version of Omicron is in decline, with less absences, and fewer teachers and administrators calling in sick.

“Also the testing clinics have gone back to pre-surge levels,” Ward said. “That’s a good sign. That means a lot less exposure notices, a lot less people getting those notices.”

With the numbers falling, the county, then CUSD, lifted its outdoor mask mandate for public schools on February 16.

County health is even talking about a day when indoor masking might be a thing of the past as well, Ward said.

But while the Omicron BA.2 variant may not currently be leading the news in the US, it’s definitely been on the radar during recent conference calls with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

“Obviously the lifting of the outdoor mask mandate for our campuses was a very welcome relief to both students and staff,” Ward said. “As case rates continue to fall here, LA County DPH has been indicating that indoor mask mandates for schools could potentially end sometime in March. But then they temper that with this new variant. So we’ll kind of see what happens over the next couple weeks.”

This week’s discussion with Ward was reminiscent of our talks in early December 2021 (headline: “Cases fall at CUSD, but Omicron on the way”), when numbers were falling following the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s November 2 approval for elementary-aged students to receive the Pfizer vaccine. Minutes after our December 1 interview, the first case of Omicron was detected in California. We all know how that went.

“We’re all in that rollercoaster,” Ward said. “We have this hope that we’ll have restrictions eased, but we have this other part of our head that’s cognizant of those changes you discussed [that can come] very quickly.

“That’s really been the conversation coming out of [LACDPH Director Barbara] Ferrer and her team is that, yes, we’re headed in the right direction right now, but be mindful, as we learned with Omicron, that things can change very quickly.”

The district is still adhering to several other components of its COVID mitigation protocols, including barring indoor assemblies, and not permitting onsite parent classroom volunteering.

“They’re a very vital piece of the support that the community gives to our schools,” Ward said of parent volunteers. “We’d like to be able to lift that at some point.”

With reports indicating Omicron BA.2 is even more easily transmitted than its stunningly virulent predecessor, everyone with a stake in the district is watching and waiting for that other shoe to drop, hopeful it will somehow be less devastating.

“We would like to resume to normal—for lack of a better word—but it’s really going to depend on those metrics.” Ward said.

“So as we go down the road here into March we’re hopeful that the county reaches the metrics and we can ease some of the restrictions, but like I said, mindful that they might be temporary or we might not meet that metric, and be in this for a little bit more of the long haul.”

The CUSD COVID numbers in this story were as of 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 23. Case numbers can fluctuate throughout the week. For the latest, go to https://claremont-ca.schoolloop.com/covid and click “COVID 19 Dashboard.”

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