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Omicron appears to be slowing at CUSD

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

It’s been a minute since Claremont Unified School District Assistant Superintendent, Human Resources Kevin Ward has been able to share any remotely positive news.

His job as CUSD’s de-facto public information officer has him in the position of being asked to spill the beans every week to the COURIER, and let’s be honest: the news has been pretty dismal since Omicron descended in late December and drove COVID cases through the roof.

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Finally, Ward has earned a well-deserved break from the gloom.

“This week we’re definitely in better shape,” he said on Wednesday. “The two weeks coming back from winter break, as you know, we really did experience a surge, [like] we were seeing out there in the community.”

That’s an understatement.

On December 15, just prior to the winter break, we were reporting CUSD was “continuing to monitor the impact of the Omicron variant,” and year-to-date positive COVID cases stood at 192. School resumed January 3, and by January 13, cases increased 140% to 461. Over the two weeks from January 12 to 24, they jumped an astonishing 180%, to 1,291.

As of 9 p.m. Wednesday, that number was 1,358.

And while that’s certainly a lot of cases, this week’s increase of just 67 marks a deceleration in the steep upward curve that has been expanding since the end of December.

As always, check the district’s COVID dashboard at https://claremont-ca.schoolloop.com/covid for the latest figures.

Ward spoke with district Health Services Coordinator Alicia King Wednesday morning, who told him the case drop off this week has been significant.

“Like we’re starting to see in L.A. County, we’re starting to see some relief, which is good,” Ward said.

Federal health officials forecast in December that mathematical models were indicating Omicron would peak at the end of January. All signs here seem — fingers crossed — to be bearing that out.

Staff outages due to COVID have also fallen, from a high of 85 two weeks ago to 40 on Tuesday and 50 on Wednesday. Just 30 had called-in for Thursday when we spoke to Ward Wednesday morning.

“This week I’ve got almost complete coverage, down like one certificated person district-wide and a smaller handful of classified positions,” Ward said. “So that really demonstrates our staff is back. We don’t have the amount of outages we had prior to this.”

Certificated staff includes teachers, psychologists, counselors and nurses.

We’re “much better with our coverage of our classrooms and not having to scramble administrators as much this week, which has been really good,” Ward said.

Ward stopped short of declaring Omicron on the run, but was hopeful CUSD had seen the worst of it.

“I’m not saying that we’re flatlined or necessarily receding at all, but what we are seeing is a significant drop-off in the amount of new cases and those numbers climbing up,” he added. “I would say we’re looking at the top of that curve, and that’s what happens before we start to flatline and drop off a little bit. So we’re definitely seeing that with yesterday and today.”

The district has also been unable to keep up with the independent contact tracing it had been doing prior to Omicron, where it notified any student or staff who had been within six feet of a positive person for 15 minutes or more. With 1,166 new cases since December 15, it’s understandable CUSD has switched to notifying whole classrooms.

“And that’s simply because we don’t have the staffing to do contact tracing,” Ward said.

Because of the larger swath of notifications, Ward said, more people are testing both through CUSD’s afterschool PCR test sites and through rapid tests made available to families January 3. So it would figure due to the Omicron surge and more tests being administered, positive cases are rising correspondingly.

District testing sites — a schedule is at https://claremont-ca.schoolloop.com/covid — are beginning to see a drop-off as well. The clinics were flooded the two weeks following winter break, but are less frantic this week, Ward said.

Windstorm damage is minimal

Meanwhile, all district campuses were closed Monday for cleanup and damage assessment following Friday’s spectacular windstorm.

District personnel, arborists, tree crews and community volunteers were out over the weekend to help clear downed limbs and clean up campuses.

“It was really neat to see folks coming out and bringing their children out and pulling branches together into stacks and helping clean gardens,” Ward said.

Emergency crews and administrators were at the district’s 10 campuses Monday for a damage assessment to determine any immediate dangers, of which they thankfully found few.

It was a complicated undertaking in that there are several buildings at each elementary campus, and scores at the secondary level, many on separate electrical circuits and each with its own internet connection.

The major damage was “very minor,” Ward said.

“We’re thrilled with that,” he said. “Most significantly, one of the giant trees on the Mountain View [Elementary] campus, or just north of the Mountain View gate on the city side of the gate, fell into one of the tall light standards that lights the Mountain View soccer field.”

Dozens of trees were downed, but somewhat amazingly, none hit any district structures. One large tree fell toward the Sumner Danbury Elementary multipurpose room, but didn’t hit it. Uprooted trees also damaged sidewalks, and fences at the CHS tennis courts were pushed and bent. Another tree fell into the solar array next to Sumner Danbury, but CUSD doesn’t own those structures. They lease the power from an outside company, which maintains them.

School resumed Tuesday.

Ward, who is going on 27 years with CUSD — 11 years at his current job, six as a principal at Oakmont, and nine as teacher at Sycamore — heaped praise on CUSD for its response to the wind storm in the face of the Omicron surge.

“I’ll tell you one thing that has impressed me in my years, especially working at this level, but also when I was a principal, is just what a great team we have,” he said. “In crisis, and in issues like this, the response, with people jumping in on weekends and nights, and the coordination we have with our contractors and vendors, and the coordination we have with the city, it is just a really … I feel very fortunate to work for his organization.”

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