Just two and half weeks after returning to classes, Fresno Unified had 394 reported cases among staff and students, and Clovis Unified had 222 cases after two weeks of instruction. Photo courtesy Ao.Coello/TheCommons

Safe Schools in the Covid Era

The beginning of a school year is always a time of excitement but also of stress for schools, parents and students, and this year was not the exception; on the contrary, these emotions were exacerbated by this invisible enemy—Covid-19—that has changed our lives since 2020.

As a mother of a 15-year-old, I struggle to decide what was best for my daughter. Was it safe to send her back to in-person classes? While some of her classmates at Buchanan High went back to the classrooms in February, my daughter remained at home taking virtual classes.

For 19 months, she had lived in a bubble, protected from Covid, but the virtual classes were not an option anymore; either she returned to in-person classes in August or she had to drop and enroll in a charter or continuation school.

In February, when vaccines for youth her age were not available, it was not a difficult decision to take, but this summer things were different. Not only were we not given the option to remain in virtual classes, but vaccines were available for teenagers 12 and older and the state had established the mandate for students and staff in public schools K-12 to wear a mask indoors.

Furthermore, I realized that while I had protected my daughter’s health by isolating her from in-person classes and social activities, her mental health had been compromised. So, like many thousand families across the state, despite the fear and anxiety I was feeling, I decided to send my daughter back to school during the Covid era.

While some students went back to in-person classes in both Fresno Unified and Clovis Unified schools in February and April, it was not until the second and third week of August that all students attending the two largest school districts in Fresno County made their way back to the classrooms.

The readiness of the schools to handle potential Covid-19 positive cases was tested early on. Just two and half weeks after returning to classes, Fresno Unified had 394 reported cases among staff and students, and Clovis Unified had 222 cases after two weeks of instruction.

The instruction for parents was to keep the children home for two weeks, and they were requiring two negative tests before being allowed back in the classroom. Parents were not provided with any resources of where to get these tests, and the sites offering free Covid-19 tests had been reduced significantly because the funding that the Health Department had to pay for contracts with multiple providers had ended.

Being part of the UC Davis–led project “Organizations to Reduce, and to Advance, and Lead for Equity against COVID-19” (ORALE) that has been offering free rapid Covid-19 tests since February, I can attest to the huge demand for Covid testing that we experienced. We went from doing 20–30 tests per site to more than 130 and due to the shortage of testing supplies, we had to put a limit of 95 tests per site. Nevertheless, the number of calls of desperate parents trying to find a place to take their children to get tested has risen drastically.

Trying to fill in this gap, Fresno Unified announced in mid-September that six schools will be offering free Covid tests for students. Six schools out of the hundreds that are part of this large school district? Seems that the remedy is just a band-aid for a serious problem.

Doubling the resources for parents to help them keep their children safe should be a priority for all schools. More testing sites are needed urgently. The school districts should also be preparing to organize vaccine clinics onsite, especially once the vaccines are approved for children under 12.

Another important resource that schools should be offering to parents is referrals to mental health services. This pandemic has taken a toll on the mental well-being of children of all ages, and many parents—including myself—do not know how to help our children learn coping skills for social isolation, stress, anxiety and other by-products of the pandemic.

The rise in Covid-19 cases among children in the last month because of the widespread Delta variant should be a red flag for all schools and for parents. We all need safe schools in this Covid era, and we need to work as a team to make it happen.

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