By Sebastian Squire
Graphic By Jennifer Notman
In an announcement Wednesday, February 3, the Acalanes Union High School District reaffirmed its intentions to reopen its schools, shuttered against COVID-19, in early March, assuming that it can do so at that time. This announcement follows nearly a year of school taking place online while COVID-19 spread rapidly in the local community. State mandates that schools in Contra Costa County remain closed pushed back previous plans to reopen, in no small part due to spikes in COVID-19 cases, positivity rates, and later deaths from trans-generational holiday celebrations despite government and warnings from public health officials.
Publically available data from the Contra Costa Health Services website shows a major spike in COVID-19 related cases and positive testing rates in early January. When case numbers were just starting to decrease from an early December spike, new all time records of COVID-19 cases in Contra Costa County were set nearly daily from January 3 to January 9 with 53.1 cases per 100,000 people on January 3; 53.3 cases on January 4; 53.7 cases on January 6; 56.5 on January 7; 61.8 on January 8; and 62.1 on January 9. In addition, the percentage of COVID-19 tests that returned positive for the lowest quartile of income earners increased to their highest numbers during the pandemic during this time frame, with positive tests numbering above 16 percent from January 4 through January 11, with the highest two days being January 8 and January 9 at 16.7 percent. For reference, the criteria for the highest, or Purple Tier of COVID-19 prevalence in the community, is 7 cases per 100,000 people daily or a testing positivity rate of more than 8 percent. Currently, the county is experiencing a steady decline in both cases and the positivity rate. Cases have fallen from a high of 62.1 in January per 100,000 to 17.7 on February 7, when most recent data was available at the time of publication. The positivity rate of tests has also fallen from its high of 16.7 percent to 5.8 percent in a similar time frame (for the lowest quartile).
“AUHSD schools will be able to reopen for in-person instruction when Contra Costa County reaches Red Tier,” said Acalanes Union High School District Associate Superintendent Aida Glimme. In order for Contra Costa County to reach the Red Tier, it needs to conform to three metrics: cases per 100,000 residents, positivity rate of tests, and an equity metric. So far, Contra Costa County has reached both the positivity rate and equity metrics, with a positivity rate of 5.8 percent as of February 7 (8 percent is allowable), and the submission of a Targeted Equity Investment Plan. However, with case numbers of 17.7 per 100,000 (7 is allowable), the country is not allowed to open schools at this time. In terms of when this might happen, Glimme said, “The county is projecting that will happen at the end of February and we are therefore planning to start in-person instruction the first week of March. This is our projection based on the current trends.” Elementary and secondary schools may open once cases reach 25 per 100,000, although Walnut Creek School District schools have not opened as of February 7.
The Acalanes Union High School District predicts that the county will enter the red tier on February 23, and school will be able to resume after 5 consecutive days in this tier, predicted to be March 2. The district hopes to curb any possible outbreaks of COVID-19 by requiring masks and ensuring that students are spaced to an adequate distance while in classrooms.
Despite struggles between teachers’ unions and administrators across the country, Glimme is confident that the school will have enough teachers to facilitate normal in person instruction. “We will have our teachers back and teaching students in the classroom when we are able to reopen. All staff is already back on campus and teaching from school in preparation for our students.” Kristin Connelly, a AUHSD governing board member, echoed Glimmer’s statements: “The COVID teams on campus have made all of [the] classrooms COVID ready… and really worked with teachers to make sure that they feel safe and are safe. (As of February 1), any teacher who is physically capable of returning to class, who is not particularly immunocompromised…actually started teaching from their classrooms…if they weren’t already doing that, in preparation of going back on campus.” Connely said it is possible for some teachers to continue to teach remotely, with a substitute watching over their class. “We are going to make accommodations so that we have an in-person…substitute teacher physically in the class. [So] when there will be students on campus, when it is their turn to be in class, [despite] the teacher teaching on Zoom.” AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson said, “Testing of students will be an expectation as students return to campus,” in a district-wide email. In addition, Glimme said that compliance is critical for bringing students to school safely: “What we need is our students to make sure and follow our protocols and help us all stay safe, healthy and open. Safety and health of all is the priority and student behavior is the key to this.”