San Francisco teachers’ union demands better testing to battle omicron variant

‘We are trying to prevent a complete shutting of schools if we don’t have the staff’

San Francisco Unified School District officials and the teachers’ union want schools to stay open despite skyrocketing case counts, leaders from both groups affirmed Wednesday.

But to keep teachers healthy and working, many are now pleading for expanded access to COVID-19 testing ahead of negotiations between the United Educators of San Francisco and the school district this week. Some are criticizing the district’s approach to preparing for the post-winter break omicron surge.

“At the expense of educators’ and students’ health and well-being, the district has twice refused UESF’s call in August, and again in December 2021, for an emergency plan for handling the latest surge of COVID-19. That is the epitome of inept and negligent leadership,” said UESF President Cassondra Curiel, calling the scramble that parents and teachers have had to go through in the last week to find COVID testing an “avoidable hot mess.”

School districts across California are reassessing their COVID-19 safety plans amid the omicron surge and dealing with delays over promised rapid antigen tests that Gov. Gavin Newsom is sending to every California K-12 student after winter break.

Oakland Unified handed out self-test kits before the winter break and asked students to show a negative test prior to their first date back. Los Angeles Unified voted to delay its return date to Tuesday and require a negative test among students and staff. Chicago Public Schools canceled classes Wednesday after Chicago Teachers Union voted to refuse in-person instruction.

Even though San Francisco school leaders say they plan to keep schools open, omicron still stands in the way of those hopes. More than 620 staff members were out on Tuesday alone, according to the teachers’ union. With substitute teachers already in short supply, School Board President Gabriela López and Superintendent Vincent Matthews were among the many certified teachers called from across the district to oversee classrooms this week.

Gabriela Lopez, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, said the school district’s approach to keeping schools open is not sustainable. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Gabriela Lopez, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, said the school district’s approach to keeping schools open is not sustainable. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“We are trying to prevent a complete shutting of schools if we don’t have the staff,” Lopez said Wednesday. “The approach we are taking is not sustainable.”

Starting Sunday, the day before students returned to school, SFUSD began offering rapid tests at school sites across the district. The district also began handing out a small number of rapid tests for students who are symptomatic, starting in November.

Students in San Francisco public schools are not required to show proof of a negative test before returning to campus.

Union officials say the district did not develop an adequate plan to handle the latest surge of COVID-19 cases by not requiring students and staff to show a negative test result before returning to campus, as some other districts have done. They also accuse the district of not having a plan to distribute its supply of COVID tests from Newsom, which arrived Tuesday.

“SFUSD just received the shipment of rapid tests late yesterday from the state and we have begun to prepare them for distribution and delivery to each school site to hand out to students,” Matthews said Wednesday. “We appreciate any offers to help. All of our staff and families will need to be a part of helping students to receive and administer the self-test kits.”

The district did not respond to questions about how those kits will be distributed, however. Curiel said she was unaware of plans and criticized what she called a “laissez-faire” approach to rapid testing.

“The district keeps dropping stuff on us and expecting us to figure it out. We are not staffed to do that,” said Jennifer Moless, a first-grade teacher at Junipero Serra Elementary School.

UESF plans to meet with the school district on Thursday to renegotiate its health and safety agreement.

Meanwhile, a growing body of research is showing that the omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta and alpha variants, but results in less severe illness among children and vaccinated individuals.

At UCSF, the majority of hospital patients with COVID-19 were admitted for reasons other than the virus, such as a bone fracture, but then tested positive upon screening at the hospital, according to Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of COVID response at UCSF Parnassus Emergency Department.

That has led her and other infectious disease experts to suggest that universal testing may not be quite as necessary with the omicron variant. Noble argues that asymptomatic testing with the current variant can mislead concerns about the actual level of threat of hospitalizations and severe illness, which has so far been relatively low with omicron.

“Here we are in 2022 with lots of vaccinations and a variant that’s much less severe. Very few hospitalizations for serious disease. With that in mind, it’s not necessary to be screening all students and teachers who are symptomatic with COVID tests before they return,” said Noble. “If SFUSD is determined to do widespread testing, they really needed to have prepared for that many weeks ago.”

The district announced this week that it will follow new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that allow students and staff who have tested positive for COVID to return to school after five days of isolation if they no longer have a fever, have improving symptoms and show proof of a negative test on or after the fifth day.

“This surge, while intense, is expected to be relatively brief and omicron by all reports is more mild than other previous variants,” Matthews said. “We will get through this surge by continuing to get vaccinated, masking, staying home when sick and testing.”

Bay City News contributed to this report.

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

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