Doctors remain ‘cautiously optimistic’ as SF schools reopen

Parents still have questions: ‘It doesn’t feel like anyone wants to talk about contingency plans’

San Francisco students returned to the classroom this week amid rising cases of the highly contagious delta variant. But while the case counts have raised concerns for some families and staff, doctors remain steadfast in their messaging that schools should not be unilaterally closed.

Dr. Art Reingold, professor and chair of the epidemiology division at UC Berkeley, said cases in school settings were “inevitable,” acknowledging that high levels of coronavirus could be disruptive.

“I think it’s basically impossible to move ahead with this virus and expect that we can achieve perfection,” said Reingold. “Is one severe illness enough to close a school? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m trying to remain cautiously optimistic that we can pull this off. It’s certainly a reminder that we have more work to do.”

Oakland Unified School District, which opened classrooms last week, has already seen a reported 68 cases among students and staff, prompting two schools to close for a quarantine period. Schools in Oakley and Brentwood saw outbreaks days after reopening. The San Francisco Unified School District reported two positive cases on Monday, the same day it welcomed back all students.

Public health experts have maintained that children are at lower risk for coronavirus or severe cases. That messaging has resonated less as the number of children hospitalized for coronavirus nationwide rises under the delta variant.

Schoolchildren leave Tenderloin Community Elementary School at the end of the day on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Schoolchildren leave Tenderloin Community Elementary School at the end of the day on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Reingold reiterated that schools are safe environments with the proper mitigation measures of masking, distancing and ventilation. He also pointed to The City’s vaccination rate, which stands at 79 percent among eligible residents. UCSF Professor Dr. George Rutherford stressed the importance of vaccines in preventing parents from spreading coronavirus to their children and then sending them off to school.

“I think you have to understand what’s going on, and then you can tailor the mitigation methods for what the underlying breakdown was,” Rutherford said. “Each one of these outbreaks has to be investigated if it truly represents school-based transmission or other transmission. Until we know that, it’s preliminary to say.”

The City’s guidance for schools is to identify close contacts — those within six feet of the person who tested positive for at least 15 cumulative minutes over a 24-hour period. Close contacts who are fully vaccinated or had coronavirus in the last three months don’t need to quarantine, nor do students who were close contacts but wore masks properly during the exposure period.

That protocol wasn’t reassuring to Darcie Bell, a mother of two children at McKinley Elementary School, which informed families of a positive case Monday evening. Bell has applied to SFUSD’s limited online learning, hoping to keep her kids home until they are eligible for a vaccine. She opted not to send them to school until she heard back about the program and said she felt “justified but also really horrible” in the decision.

“I lost friends and family last year; learning loss is the least of my worries,” Bell said. “Having an honor system of getting them tested is really flaky. Why weren’t there more precautions in spring when there wasn’t delta?”

Should an outbreak be detected, SFUSD will alert the Department of Public Health for consultation. But the lack of conversation has contributed to Annie Phan, a teacher at Rooftop Elementary and Middle School, feeling “super nervous” going into the new school year. Students seem to take masking and vaccinations seriously, which she found heartening. How to provide proper ventilation, often achieved through open windows, when wildfire smoke wafts in, still worries her.

“I’d just love to hear what happens worst-case scenario and hope for the best,” Phan said. “It doesn’t feel like anyone wants to talk about the contingency plans. In a weird way, even though we know so much more about COVID, I know so much less about how we’re handling it.”

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