School Board recap | Mask policy, PCR testing plan paused, and more

Students will not have to wear masks during PE now even as an outdoor mask policy remains in effect for the time being.

In an update to the Board of Education on Wednesday, Jan. 26, Superintendent Randy Booker shared the latest COVID-19 related developments on school campuses:

Outdoor mask policy remains in effect for now — with PE exception

The outdoor mask policy for fully vaccinated upper school students was dropped last fall when COVID-19 case rates fell, but students in the 5-11 age group — elementary school students — who were only just eligible for vaccines were required to remain masked until at least mid-January. With the rise of omicron, an outdoor mask policy was reinstated by the school district across all grade levels on Jan. 19.

I am aware this may not be a popular decision with everyone. Our goal remains to protect in-person instruction and keep our students and staff on campus. It was the consensus of the Committee that under current conditions, this step back was the best way to continue accomplishing that goal while maintaining the highest standards of safety possible. I am confident that as cases begin to decline in the near future, we will continue to build on the positive momentum created in our community through its commitment to vaccinations (nearly 97% PUSD students are now fully vaccinated), masking and social distancing. I thank you for your understanding as we ride out the current surge and look forward to a safe and successful second half of the school year.

Superintendent Randy Booker in email to PUSD families on Jan. 18

According to Booker’s update, the Health and Safety Steering Committee on Jan. 26 again recommended that the outdoor mask policy not be rescinded at this time, as COVID case rates are still extremely high.

Booker told the Board that the district will review PUSD case rates — not county case rates — on Feb. 4 and if they continue to show a rapid decline he will rescind the policy on Feb. 7. “I believe that both our current outdoor mask policy should be nuanced to address existing experiences (such as outdoor PE classes when we can better ensure appropriate social distancing among students), and it should also be connected to PUSD data points to determine its application.” After a dramatic winter break uptick, PUSD case rates have been dropping in the last two weeks — from 33 to 27 last week, according to the district dashboard.

The Health and Safety Committee, like the Budget Advisory Committee, the Facilities Steering Committee, and other groups of its kind, is composed of community volunteers with specialized expertise who meet regularly with the district to offer advice to district decision-makers. The committee consists of two Board members (Cory Smegal and Amal Smith), district administrators, and local medical/health professionals, including noted UCSF epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford.

Trustee Hilary Cooper, who has been an advocate for removing the outdoor mask mandate, questioned the utility of the Health and Safety Committee — urging Booker to move toward guidelines and away from opinions. “I understand that these decisions are not easy, and it’s wonderful that we have community members who have stepped forward to help us, especially when the government wasn’t giving us guidance, but having said that, I worry that when we rely on opinions and not rules, it puts you in a tough spot,” she told Booker.

“We have the Health and Safety Committee recommending one course of action and CDC and others recommending another. Let’s get back to guidelines, let’s follow the rules, whatever the county is telling us to do.”

Board of Education Trustee Hilary Cooper

“I’ve appreciated the respectful conversations on the committee,” said Trustee Smegal. “In terms of outdoor masking we haven’t seen data that we can point to that masking helps or hurts. But for a chunk of our students masking is very hard and it makes their school day harder. I agree with Hilary that I would like to move back as soon as we can to just mandated activities.” Nevertheless, and although there was no action for the Board to take, Smegal noted that they were all generally supportive of the superintendent’s decision.

“We all want normalcy,” said Trustee Megan Pillsbury. “We all want no masks. Any mitigation we have needs to remain right now. Whatever we can do to keep our teachers healthy is important” given the shortage of substitutes.

High school English teacher Dr. Elise Marks, who gave an update from APT at the top of the meeting, told the Board that “we’ve done remarkably well,” she said. “All of the measures have been working. We’re not out of the woods yet — I’m aware of a couple of staff cases this week.”

Several parents spoke during the public comment period to ask that the district follow county guidelines in the matter rather than its own policy. A petition calling for the end of outdoor masking was sent to the board this month. Outdoor masking is not required by the California Department of Public Health.

Booker noted that Health and Safety Committee meeting minutes will be made public soon.

PCR testing on pause

PUSD had planned to start regular weekly PCR testing this month but lab processing delays have made the plan a non-starter for now. “If they don’t get back to us in four days, then what’s the point?” Booker said. Screening testing of asymptomatic individuals (which is sometimes referred to as “surveillance testing”) can be helpful for early detection and reducing transmission of COVID-19 but only if turnaround times are short.

According the the district, Valencia Lab, the lab that processes the district’s PCR tests, is experiencing long delays in reporting results due to a surge in testing and labor shortages at the lab. Some results are now reported 4-5 days after the sample was collected, and this delay in obtaining results means that the district cannot effectively use the results to isolate positive cases to reduce transmission.

Additionally, concerns about PCR tests being able to detect COVID-19 for up to 90 days after an infection could mean that a student who is healthy now but who had an infection in the last three months will test positive, making them subject to isolation.

Collecting staff booster information

Under new public health guidance, adults (not minors) are considered “up to date” on vaccinations against COVID-19 only when in receipt of all boosters for which they are eligible. The reason for this change is that immunity against COVID-19 wanes over time. As “essential workers,” many in the district were among the first in Northern California to get vaccinated against COVID-19, so they are among the first to need a booster to maintain protective levels of immunity. Following an exposure to COVID-19 at school, quarantine may be required for adults who are
not up to date on boosters as well as the primary vaccinations for COVID-19. To protect the health of the school community and avoid unnecessary absences by staff, the district will soon track staff booster status in the same manner it currently tracks vaccination status.

Online COVID case-rate tracker

The school district has resumed updating its COVID-19 case dashboard.

As reported on Jan. 10, the district was notified of roughly 228 COVID-19 cases within the school community between Dec. 17, 2021 and Jan. 10, 2022.

Picking up from there, there were 33 additional positive cases within the school community from Jan. 11 through Jan. 14.

There were 27 additional positive cases from Jan. 15 through Jan. 21.

The case numbers may change as the district continues to receive and verify information.

Clearance Testing – New Hours

The school district is continuing to offer on-site rapid antigen testing to clear symptomatic and post-symptomatic students and staff to return to school. It is encouraging news that demand for this testing is beginning to decline, so testing hours have been adjusted accordingly. Clearance testing if now offered each school day:
❖ 7:00 am – 8:00 am (M-F);
❖ 2:15 pm – 3:15 pm (W only); and
❖ 4:30 pm – 5:15 pm (M, T, Th).
These times may be subject to change due to staffing. Student testing is by appointment only and scheduled by the site health clerks only.

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