Virus strains schools: Bay Area teachers call in sick, some classes go back online

The virus surge has been straining school systems causing teachers to call out sick and some classes to go back online.

District officials said all 54 schools in West Contra Costa County will be closed Friday and Monday as crews will be doing deep cleaning of the classrooms. 

More than 5,000 students have been absent each day this week, or almost a quarter of those enrolled in the district of 28,000 students and the district believes the coronavirus is to blame, spokesman Ryan Phillips said.

In Oakland, 12 public schools were forced to close Friday due to staffing shortages. The district had earlier warned of a possible teacher sickout today that could disrupt classes. Teachers have asked to be provided with KN95 masks and weekly PCR tests.

A 10-day quarantine was announced in the Milpitas Unified School District on Friday. Classes will be held remotely through Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 17 due to "an exorbitant number of positive student and staff cases," the district said Friday.

There were 167 teaching positions that were unfilled this week as well as 107 support staff positions, according to this district. That created a strain in which some classes were grouped together under one teacher.

One in six of San Francisco’s 3,600 teachers were out Thursday. Even with administrators, substitutes and others stepping in there weren’t enough teachers for every classroom, Superintendent Vince Matthews said.

"This is the most challenging time in my 36 years as an educator," Matthews said during a break from filling in as a sixth-grade science teacher. "We’re trying to educate students in the middle of a pandemic while the sands around us are consistently shifting."

Nearly 900 teachers and aides in San Francisco called in sick Thursday. 

A group of educators had called for a sickout, arguing that the school district hadn’t done enough to protect them during the surge. They are asking for more testing and for all students to wear medical-grade masks.

It wasn’t clear how many educators who called in sick took part or had the virus or were out caring for family members.

At Mission High School, student Jazmine Keel said more than 70 teachers joined the protest.

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"There barely were even enough subs to take attendance," she said, although district officials said classes weren’t interrupted.

Late Thursday afternoon, the principal from Oakland Tech High School posted to ParentSquare that students should not be sent to school on Friday, even though the school would technically be open and the sickout was unsanctioned. 

In his post, Principal Richard Fairly confirmed teachers had notified him they would be absent. 

"While our school will still be open tomorrow, it is highly likely that no instruction will be provided," he wrote while also offering an apology.

Universities also felt the crush of the omicron surge.

Leaders at California State University East Bay, San Francisco State and some University of California schools, such as Santa Cruz, announced this week that classes would be remote, at least through the end of the month. They hoped classes would return in person on Jan. 31. 

Many parents and students fear that closed classrooms and remote learning will send the state back into the quagmire of 2020 and 2021, when most agree that online learning was not beneficial to California's six million public school students.

And a debate was reignited between those who think schools should remain open and those who do not. 

San Francisco school board president Gabriela López said the district needs to pull out all the stops to prevent schools from closing down. 

"What we are trying to do is trying to prevent a complete shuttering of schools if we do not have the staff because people couldn't ensure their safety and that of their families."

And UCSF COVID Response Director Dr. Jeanne Noble said that there is a very low burden of serious COVID cases in the region and there are no patients hospitalized who are vaccinated. 

"So our risk of serious illness is very low and we don’t need to look at measures like closing schools," she said. 

However, some parents of children who contracted COVID thought it was OK to go online – at least until the surge dies down.

That's because their children were contagious and having a virtual classroom for a couple of weeks, would allow them to participate instead of falling behind. 

Skyline High School history teacher Harley Litzelman, who is organizing a sickout at his school, said no child – whether they're in the classroom or not – is properly learning anyway at the moment. 

"For teachers who have barely anyone in their class, they are not teaching their normal curriculum," he said. "For kids in school with a substitute or with some random person covering their class, they are not learning. Does that all really sound better than two weeks of remote learning?" 

 KTVU's Christien Kafton, Rob Roth, Jesse Gary, James Torrez and Lisa Fernandez, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.