SACRAMENTO — With the Omicron variant raging across California, millions of schoolchildren returned to classrooms on Monday, ending the holiday break as many had spent it — masked, distanced, apprehensive and in long lines with their parents, scrambling for coronavirus tests.
Few schools were closed in a state whose Covid-19 precautions have been among the most aggressive in the nation. California has managed to maintain comparatively low rates of virus-related deaths and hospitalizations.
But infections have soared recently because of the highly contagious variant, which appears to result in less severe cases. In hundreds of districts, in-person instruction was conditioned on heightened health requirements and fraught with the understanding that even those might not prevent a return to remote learning.
“Frankly, the disruption I’m worried about isn’t Day 1 — it’s Day 2, 3 or 4 if we get 30 or 40 or 50 positive cases,” said Alex Cherniss, the superintendent of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, where, after days of impassioned community debate, some 10,000 students in coastal Los Angeles County returned to class on Monday.
“People are exhausted here,” he said.
California’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, was not scheduled to resume classes until next week. But on Monday, the district issued new rules requiring baseline testing as a condition of returning to campus, regardless of vaccination status. Previously, testing had been optional for vaccinated and asymptomatic students and employees.
In many other districts, reopening classrooms on Monday also hinged on fresh rounds of coronavirus testing.
In Marin County, students had been given kits to test for the virus before re-entering campus. In Sacramento County, families stood for hours over the weekend at testing sites hastily erected by school districts or took advantage of an infusion of six million take-home tests the state supplied to districts across California as Omicron was starting to spike.
“We did two tests at home and he’s fine,” Emily Ramey said as she dropped off her younger child at a middle school in suburban Sacramento. “I’m just hoping that everyone else tested, too.”
Los Angeles Unified already conducts the nation’s largest weekly school-based coronavirus testing program, but health officials in the county have ratcheted up other measures that will affect the hundreds of thousands of students and employees in the school system, along with those in private schools and nearly 80 other public school districts.
New health rules starting Jan. 1 mandate, for example, that returning students at all of the county’s districts wear face masks not only indoors but also outside at recess, and that school employees upgrade to medical-grade N95 or KN95 face coverings.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has reiterated that the state is “committed” to keeping classrooms open and promised last month to make home testing kits “available to every K-12 public school student as they head back to the classroom from winter break.”
But not all districts had received their allotment by Monday. San Francisco schools increased mobile testing sites throughout the city and strongly encouraged students to get tested before returning, in part because they will not receive their allotment of tests from the state until later this week.
In Palos Verdes, Mr. Cherniss said concern over Omicron almost prompted the district to delay reopening until next week. But when he announced he was considering it, he said, the outcry from parents was fierce. Eventually, the district opted to reopen as scheduled, but to strongly encourage students to test before returning.
“We did a big push over the weekend,” he said. “We handed out 2,000 home tests in less than three hours and did another 2,000 live tests. More than 100 were positive.”