Vallejo, Benicia school officials eye rising COVID numbers


As the surging Omicron variant raises the number of COVID-19 cases in Solano County, local parents are increasingly concerned about keeping their kids in the classroom.

The rapid growth has been on the mind of Vallejo and Benicia school districts as they wrestle with the question of halting in-person instruction.

“As has been the experience of school districts throughout the region and across the state of California, the Vallejo City Unified School District has seen a steady uptick of positive COVID-19 cases among its staff and students,” district spokesperson Stephen Nichols said in an email to the Times-Herald on Thursday afternoon. “In alliance with the state and county public health agencies, the district continues to provide multiple and robust safeguards within its schools, offices, and classrooms to prevent the spread of the virus. At this time, absentee rates in the district average 20-25 percent overall, but it should be noted this includes all categories — not just COVID case absences, which is a fraction of the total absences.”

As of Friday afternoon, Solano County had seen 57,641 COVID-related cases, with 5.666 active cases. On Dec. 30, Solano had seen 49,378 COVID-19 related cases, with 1,382 of them being current. That means in about two weeks the county has seen over 8,000 new cases. There have been 363 COVID-19 related deaths — over 115 of them coming since July of last year.

Nichols went on to say that the district continues to monitor trends and will respond appropriately.

“As required by the state, VCUSD has a strong desire to continue to offer daily in-person instruction as the best and most effective form of learning,” Nichols said.

A letter sent out from Solano Widenmann Leadership Academy to its students’ parents and families is shown. (Courtesy Photo) 

On Jan. 10 a Parent Square letter from Solano Widenmann Leadership Academy Vice-Principal Diane Johnson informed the school’s parents and families that a child in the school’s classroom had “tested positive for COVID-19 and your child has been identified as being as a close contact. As you know, all appropriate protocols, including mask wearing and practicing good hygiene are at place at Solano Widenmann.”

The letter went on to say that students vaccinated with no symptoms could return to school immediately but must be tested on the fifth day from exposure. Those students must have proof of vaccination.

For those not vaccinated, the student was asked to stay home for five days. On the fifth day of exposure, they were asked to get a COVID test. If the test resulted in negative, they could return or they could stay at home for 10 days and not test.

Emerita Barker, a parent of an eighth-grader at the school, was concerned after receiving the letter. Barker claimed that an office worker at the school said that 132 students were out due to COVID or COVID-related symptoms or common colds.

The Times-Herald called the front desk of the school on Friday and two people answered having no knowledge of that many people out. One of the two called the accusation of 132 people out “a lie.” The letter sent out on Parent Square from Johnson only said one person had contacted COVID.

On Friday afternoon, Nichols wrote the Times-Herald with added information addressing the claim that so many people had called in sick.

“As has been the experience of school districts throughout the nation, Vallejo City Unified School District has seen a steady uptick of absenteeism among staff and students with 34 students, which is 6 percent of all students at Solano Widenmann Leadership Academy, self-reported as due to COVID today,” Nichols said. “While it’s hard to decipher how many of the total absences are due to COVID, we know that each day approximately two are self-reported as due to COVID. We will continue to monitor trends to ensure the safety of our students and families.

“By aligning with the state and county public health agencies to provide multiple and robust safeguards within its schools, offices, and classrooms, our goal is to prevent the spread of the virus, Nichols continued. “As required by the state, VCUSD has a strong desire to continue to offer daily in-person instruction as the best and most effective form of learning.”

However, Barker was concerned about her daughter going back to school and the way the issue was being handled.

“I think it’s crazy that the school did not inform us parents about that many kids out,” Barker said. “One of my daughter’s teachers is out and her class had to stay in the gymnasium for that period. I also find it pretty ridiculous the district isn’t letting us know as well. They are being very reckless about this outbreak.”

Barker claimed her daughter has no symptoms and that they have looked into virtual learning. Barker and her daughter are not vaccinated, the mom said.

“I’ve looking into the virtual learning, which the district has no room for any new students or any computers,” Barker said. “My daughter is on the long waiting list to get both of those.”

Barker said her daughter posted a negative test on Thursday and went back to school on Friday.

“I just tell her to wash her hands keep her mask on and everything will be alright. It’s very trying times I have anxiety about it,” Barker said. “I just hope that this calms down sooner rather than later.”

On Wednesday, Benicia Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Charles Young wrote a letter to students’ parents and families to address the outbreak as well as hiring more substitute teachers.

“We understand that some may be wondering if we are going to close schools,” Young wrote in the letter. “Please know BUSD plans to keep our schools open and will do everything we can in that regard, doing so in a manner that follows CDPH guidelines. The law that allowed for distance learning ended last school year and does not allow for that option this year unless a situation presented itself where insufficient staff were available to run schools and all options were fully exhausted.”

Young said that the human resourced department hired 27 additional substitutes to the teaching staff for the 2021-22 school year, saying “this strategy has worked well as we have had enough substitutes and other staff to cover any vacancies we have had in classrooms.”

“We added an additional testing day for staff and extended the hours of our Friday testing clinic, Young said. “We realize these slots have filled up very quickly and that we have a need for more. At this time, however, the company we are contracting with cannot commit to additional testing clinics in BUSD. When we have multiple positive cases in one classroom, we will work to provide on-site testing for those classes. Parents will need to sign a consent through a link that will be sent through Parent Square if this is needed. We are also linking alternate testing sites here for your convenience: Solano County – COVID-19 Vaccines.”

Young also discussed the home testing kids sent out to staff and students in the BUSD before winter break in mid December.

“This strategy was extremely effective in limiting positive cases upon the return to school on January 6, 2022,” Young said. “We have provided N95 or KN95 masks to all staff who want them and will continue to do so. It is vitally important that students continue to wear a snug-fitting mask that securely fits over the nose and mouth. Medical masks are more effective than cloth masks, and properly fitted N-95 or KN95 masks are more effective than medical masks. Students may also choose to wear a cloth mask over a medical mask to help with the seal.”

Young urged parents and families to follow charts given that had detailed explanation of the new CDPH guidelines as they related to the quarantine protocols.

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