Dayanara Mendoza, 16, a sophomore at Richmond High School, sits outside the school on Jan. 14, 2022. She said on a recent school day, three of her five teachers were out. Thousands of students and dozens of teachers in West Contra Costa Unified School District haven't attended school over the past three weeks, saying they don't feel safe returning to in-person instruction. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Nearly one-third of students in West Contra Costa Unified have not been attending school over the past three weeks, creating a crisis for the East Bay school district.
The district — which covers the cities of Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Pinole and Hercules and enrolls some 27,000 students — reported 737 student and 70 staff COVID cases from Jan. 11-14. But even students who are not positive or quarantining are choosing to remain at home, out of fear they will be next to get the virus. On Jan. 14, for example, district attendance figures show 8,820 students were absent, while 17,440 attended.
“This entire week, I feel like I am choosing between my health, the health of my family versus my education. I shouldn’t have to make this decision,” student school board delegate Justin Trujillo, a senior at Pinole Valley High School, told the board at a Jan. 13 safety meeting in Richmond.
While the district says few of these positive cases are linked to in-school transmission, students like Trujillo aren’t buying it.
Both Trujillo and De Anza High senior Irene Kou, the other student delegate to the board, believe it is past time for the district to offer a temporary return to online learning for students who feel vulnerable.
“It is a joke that the district believes that in-person learning in these conditions is better for all of us,” said Kou. “Having our county health officials determine it is safe to go to school when they have not visited our school sites or interviewed students or staff members to understand what it is truly like on campus is just another slap in the face for us.”
County health officials and county education officials confirmed they had not made any visits to schools in the West Contra Costa Unified School District since the most recent omicron surge began.
A Contra Costa Health Services spokesperson said in an email that infections diagnosed in students and school staff are not necessarily the result of exposure at school, and COVID-19 transmission remains much more likely to occur among people living in the same household or participating in other non-school activities, which they attributed to the California Department of Public Health.
At Richmond High, where 53 students tested positive for COVID during the week of Jan. 11-14 (a short week after students had Monday off) and where hundreds of kids have been sent home to quarantine, 32 teachers stayed home Wednesday as part of a single-day "sick-out" action by teachers and students protesting safety conditions at the school.
Richmond High journalism teacher Lorenzo Morotti, who did show up to teach, said hundreds of students are without teachers, and are being sent to the auditorium or gym to spend their seven class periods. “There is no learning going on in these classrooms. All there is is anxiety and the spread of COVID,” said Morotti.
Dayanara Mendoza, a 16-year-old sophomore at Richmond High, said that on a recent school day three of her five teachers were out.
“They either put us in the theater or they give us subs because a lot of teachers are absent and they have to put, like, other kids in the theater as well,” she said.
Morotti supports the teacher’s sick-out, calling it absurd to think COVID isn’t being transmitted inside the school. During the Jan. 19 board meeting, the district said it has little evidence of in-school transmission. However, Morotti said after kids returned from winter break, eight of his students were sent home on a single day, all of them in class with a student who tested positive.
In this majority-Latino district, Morotti said families have a right to be concerned.
“Latino students and families were hit so hard last year with COVID. They’ve seen family members die because of COVID, they’ve had family members lose jobs because of COVID. There’s a huge disconnect between the district and the reality that’s on the ground,” Morotti said.
Richmond High’s student body is 85.4% Latino with 40.7% English-language learners, and many teachers have voiced concerns to the board about the difficulty many of their non-native English-speaking parents are having navigating the school district’s online portal needed to reserve COVID testing appointments, where even the translation option is hard to see, according to those who spoke during public comment.
Although senior Adrian Revuelta said the fear of catching COVID at school is real, he remains reluctant to return to distance learning. Revuelta said the hallways feel different.
“At lunch, you usually see people up on the lockers, people chitchatting … With the uprising of COVID cases … you see everyone keeping their distance, being scared, you know?”
But Revuelta had just returned from four days in quarantine himself (he tested negative) and said he’s having a hard time catching up. The only silver lining of fewer classmates, he said, is that his class sizes are smaller and teachers who are there can give him more individualized instruction.
With so many teachers out, and a shortage of substitutes to step in, sophomore Luz Ruiz said the staffing shortage is affecting learning.
“It is a little difficult for me right now since there's finals, and I really wanted my teacher’s opinions on what to do, and they're not here, so I can't really ask them," she said. Ruiz thinks a temporary pause on in-person classes makes sense.
During the Jan. 19 school board meeting, board member Leslie Reckler called the situation across the district “desperate.” But safety concerns were not even part of the board agenda.
Following public comment during which parents questioned the lack of focus on safety concerns, district Superintendent Kenneth "Chris" Hurst announced he had amended his presentation to include an update on safety, admitting this was not typically done.
“We are certainly listening. The message by some that’s being shared that we are not listening is simply not accurate,” said Hurst, as he began a lengthy presentation on the district’s future strategic plan.
While some teachers and students are calling for allowing some schools to shift over to online learning, that’s not an option being endorsed by the district. The district’s only virtual school is already at capacity with 316 students, in part because they cannot fill the 24 positions needed to staff the online school. Meanwhile, some 400 parents are on the waitlist, trying to get their kids in.
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It is not just a problem of hiring teachers — like many other Bay Area districts, WCCUSD is also struggling to find substitutes. District data shows it pays the lowest daily rate for substitutes in the Bay Area: $190 compared with $300 in San Francisco. Board member Demetrio Gonzales-Hoy pleaded for the district to do what it can to attract more substitute educators who could help fill in for teachers. “That is on us, that there are hundreds of students who are not learning,” Gonzalez-Hoy lamented.
This week the district followed others in launching a public campaign calling on community members for help. So far, 11 have come forward; the district’s goal is to get 100.
When asked at last week’s special board meeting about learning loss for the thousands of students who are missing classes, the district's Chief Academic Officer LaResha Martin didn’t have an answer for elementary school kids. For middle and high school kids, she said, grading deadlines would be extended.
“And so that’s really to help all those students who’ve been out, to give them an extra eight to 10 days to get in any missing work, especially for our students who have been out on quarantine because of COVID, and to give our staff additional time to enter grades,” Martin said.
Extra time to turn assignments in should help Richmond High junior Cincia Valiente. She stayed home Wednesday in part, she said, because the school has only been distributing cloth masks, which she considers inadequate.
“They are not giving out the disposable kind. I asked multiple times, actually," Valiente said.
The district says it is now distributing N95s for teachers and surgical masks for students. It has requested 200,000 from the state. But at Richmond High, it feels a bit late since during the week of Jan 11, over half the student body was out.
District staff said more take-home testing kits have been ordered and it is trying to get the county to help it schedule more vaccine clinics. Just 52% of West Contra Costa Unified’s students are vaccinated, fewer than in other Bay Area districts, such as Oakland Unified (62%) and Berkeley Unified (80%).
Meanwhile, the county office of education has said it will help the district speed up its contact tracing.
“I'm actually really scared that we might have to leave school again,” said Valiente. ”It's really hard to work at home. There's so many distractions.”
Valiente said she doesn’t want to return to learning from home — she just wants schools to be safer.