PALMDALE — Student quarantines due to positive COVID-19 cases or exposure to positive cases forced the cancellation of four high school football games so far this season.
Antelope Valley and Quartz Hill high schools canceled their respective Aug. 27 home games. The Friday night lights were off at Quartz Hill High for the second consecutive time last week. Vasquez High School, which was set to host Lancaster High School, also canceled its game due to COVID-19.
Antelope Valley Union High School District started the school year Aug. 9. Shortly after that, three confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 were identified at Quartz Hill High. School officials identified more than 200 students as potential close contacts of the positive cases. Those students were notified by school personnel and, based upon their vaccination status, were provided quarantine directions, the District said.
District officials attributed the large number of students to two physical education classes, where the class size is traditionally larger. The defined criteria of a close contact — within six feet of a positive COVID-19 case for a cumulative 15 minutes within any 24-hour period during the infectious period, whether masked or unmasked — was difficult for the staff to assess. No teachers or staff members were required to quarantine, District administrators said.
The quarantine is typically for 10 days. Those who are vaccinated and are not showing symptoms do not have to quarantine. Those who get a COVID-19 test after the fifth day of quarantine can end the quarantine.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, nine Quartz Hill High School students have tested positive for COVID-19. Quartz Hill High is one of 14 LA County schools — and the only one in the Antelope Valley — listed on the Department of Public Health’s website as having an active COVID-19 outbreak.
“We have experienced positive cases of both students and staff since the beginning of the school year,” the District said in a statement.“Each time we are notified of a positive case, a team designated at each site conducts thorough contact tracing to determine the close contacts of the positive case.”
On average, each positive case results in 25 students identified as close contacts and the number of students quarantined dependent upon the vaccination status of those students, according to the District,
“The number of students quarantined at Quartz Hill High School and throughout the District has fluctuated since the start of the school year,” the District said. “The highest number of students quarantined on any given day was at Quartz Hill High School during the first week of school when contact tracing consisted of two physical education classes where the class size is traditionally larger and the defined criteria of a close contact was difficult for our staff to assess.”
Schools are required to report school-associated COVID-19 cases to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health within one business day. This information is reviewed by public health officials to ensure that isolation and quarantine have occurred, and an investigator will follow-up with the school if additional support is needed, the Department said in response to an email query.
Any school that has a cluster of three or more cases within 14 days is required to report it to Public Health immediately so that department officials can determine whether the school cases have epidemiological linkages on campus (that is, cases were in the same place at the same time while one or more cases were infectious), indicating probable transmission at the school, public health officials said.
“If DPH confirms that the reported cluster has (three) or more epidemiologically linked cases in the past 14 days, an outbreak investigation may be opened,” public health officials said.
All active outbreaks being investigated by the Department of Public Health are listed on their website at http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/coronavirus/locations.htm#educational-settings
“Layered prevention strategies in schools, including indoor masking requirements, asymptomatic screening testing programs, vaccination, and distancing are important strategies to ensure that schools remain safe for children and staff,” public health officials said.
The Department of Public Health will launch on online school dashboard this month to provide better transparency in regard to COVID-19 and schools. The dashboard will include a district map shaded to provide district level information on testing volume, community case rates, and community vaccination rates. The dashboard will also display school level information, including numbers of student and staff cases, details on outbreaks at the school, and the number of students at the school required to quarantine, according to a description.
Westside Union School District posted its own COVID-19 case rate dashboard on the District website at https://www.westside.k12.ca.us/covid. The dashboard provides a 14-day rolling window. It lists the rate for each individual school site as well as the District office, which includes all employees not assigned to a single school site in addition to staff assigned to the District office.
According to the most recent data posted on Sept. 2, 40 out of 8,953 Westside students tested positive for COVID-19 for a 0.45% case rate. There were five positive cases among 1,203 staff members, for a 0.42% case rate. Taken together, out of 10,156 students and staff the 45 positive cases represent a 0.44% case rate.
“We haven’t put in the quarantine rate because that’s a more difficult number,” Westside Superintendent Regina Rossall said.
For example, if a middle school student gets exposed to COVID-19, school officials need to look at each class period the student was in. By comparison, an elementary student is around the same group of students throughout the day.
“We’ve actually some classes that we’ve had to close for the quarantine period,” Rossall said.
The California Department of Public Health issued a public health order Aug. 11 requiring all school staff throughout the state to either show proof of full vaccination or be tested at least once per week. The new policy took effect Aug. 12, and schools must be in full compliance by Oct. 15. Westside tests twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays so they can receive the results within the same work week.
Lancaster School District third grade teacher Anna Hill said she would like her district to have a dashboard on its website similar to what Westside Union has on its website. Hill said one second grade class had 16 students out. She expressed concern that students are not social distancing in the school cafeteria.
“Indoors the students are very good about wearing masks. The problem is in the cafeteria there is no social distancing and no mask requirement. The kids are eating for more than 10, 15 minutes and they’re right next to each other and the tables are right next to each other,” Hill said.
Hill said she felt safer in the spring when she had half as many students for half a day due to distance learning. Students also sat six feet apart.
“They didn’t have lunch on campus and students did not remove their masks because there was no recess,” Hill said.
Hill, who works at Mariposa Elementary School, has also asked the District increase its water supply.
“We should be the ones to supply water if (students) don’t bring water from home,” Hill said.
In order to welcome students back to the classroom this fall, California’s attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 included a multi-layered approach mandating that masks be worn in schools.
“But also things like, ‘Did you upgrade your air filtration systems? Yes, we did. Do you have HEPA filters in the classroom? Yes, we do. Did you put in any other safety measures? Well, we have hand sanitizer and kids are allowed to wash their hands, and we have plastic shields around kids’ desks. And we have plastic shields at the teachers’ desk. So we have a multi-layered approach,” Larry Freise, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services for Lancaster School District, said.
Having achieved those multiple layers of safety, Freise said the state allows the District to load its classrooms as it would normally load them, with no distance restrictions.
“But they never got rid of the six feet of distance for exposure, that’s still in place,” Freise said.
That means if a student tests positive for COVID-19, school administrators must draw a six-foot circle around the student. Anyone within that circle is now considered exposed to COVID-19 and must quarantine. Each classroom has a seating chart, where students are required to sit in the same seat to assist with contract tracing.
“Automatically you’re going to have a much higher number of children that have to be quarantined,” Freise said.
Elementary school children younger than 12 years cannot be vaccinated against COVID-19 yet. Vaccine companies are still in the trial data phase for young adolescents.
“We’re doing the best we can under the conditions. We are applying a multi-layered safety approach, but we fully anticipated that not only were kids going to be positive but we’re going to have to quarantine kids and that’s exactly what happened,” Freise said.
Lancaster School District started school on Aug. 10, through Aug. 27, the District had 81 confirmed cases of COVID-19 between staff and students. They had to quarantine 264 students, though not at the same time as some students have already completed their quarantines. When there is a case positive in a classroom, the District will notify all of the families in the classroom that there was a positive case without getting into specifics such as whether it was a student or teacher.
“We certainly meet and go beyond all the reporting requirements,” Freise said.
In regard to concerns about student lunches, Freise said the District encourages students to eat outside, weather permitting. For elementary campuses, students in the same elementary class eat together. They also sit at assigned numbers in the cafeteria. Middle school students can eat in the cafeteria with seats spaced out appropriately. Once the seats are full the rest of the students have to eat outside.
As for water for students, Freise said the District has a total of 92 classrooms in the District without running water mostly in portable classrooms at middle schools. Students are encouraged to bring their own water bottle. The District also doubled its allocation of water bottles. Every classroom without running water get two cases of water a week with 24 bottles per case. The District shut off water fountains for safety. The District also purchased close to 75 portable wash stations to be near classrooms without running water so students can wash their hands.
Ryan Beardsley, assistant superintendent of Human Resources for Palmdale School District, said the District would wait until the county’s new school COVID-19 dashboard is released later this month to avoid putting out disparate numbers.
“I can tell you very few if any cases that we have diagnosed have been attributed to school exposure,” Beardsley said.
Beardsley added, “Our nurses are doing a fantastic job trying to keep up with all the changes, trying to error on the side of caution but at the same time not wanting to send home students unnecessarily because they definitely have benefited from being in class and we want to maximize that opportunity.”
Eastside Union School District started school on Aug. 9. That was the first in-person instructional day since March 13, 2020, with the exception of in-person summer programs conducted in June and July 2021.
“Our Board of Trustees continued to provide direction to remain on distance learning throughout the 2020-2021 school year due to high case rates within our district boundaries,” Eastside Superintendent Joshua Lightle wrote in an email. “Our teachers and support staff remain steadfast in their commitment to serve our students and community.”
Eastside’s quarantine numbers are much higher than anticipated due to pivoting a few entire classrooms to short-term independent study when District officials were unable to isolate specific students as close contacts, Lightle said.
“We are so grateful to our teachers who have had to make such quick adjustments in providing in-person instruction one day, then providing distance learning to the class the next day or providing short-term independent study work for individual students on quarantine. We remain committed to promoting the safety of our students, staff, and community while providing a continuous educational program,” he wrote.
Southern Kern Unified School District, which opened on Aug. 11, had 43 students from six schools test positive out of 3,548 students and 10 staff members out of 403 staff members as of Sept. 2.
Keppel Union School District also has a number of students out on quarantine for various reasons, though the District could not provide specific numbers.
“Some students are in quarantine due to their responses to our health screening questions. Some students have been exposed to someone that has tested positive for COVID-19, and a small number of students have tested positive themselves. We are following current DPH guidelines to ensure everyone’s safety,” Keppel Superintendent Jacqueline Cardenas wrote in a text message.