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As the first school year back on campus comes to a close, Covid infection rates in California again are on the rise, but with one distinct difference: Few districts are tightening up masking and other restrictions that were in place at the start of the year, even for large gatherings like graduations and proms.
Year-end celebrations have become hot spots for Covid transmission in some districts. About 90 students at San Mateo High School tested positive for Covid after a prom at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on April 9. In Sacramento, 21 people who attended the C.K. McClatchy High School junior prom at the city’s Masonic Temple on April 23 tested positive for the virus.
This month, outbreaks seem to have become even more common. Monday, the Marin Independent Journal reported that 20 Marin schools are experiencing Covid outbreaks. Last week the San Francisco Chronicle reported that at least 65 students at Los Gatos High School tested positive for Covid.
Nationwide, new Covid infections have increased substantially in the past month, with California adding more than 158,000 new cases during that time.
Covid dashboards, available on most school districts’ websites, show large increases in the number of infections from March to April. Covid cases in San Diego Unified more than doubled, for example, while cases in Berkeley Public Schools and Dublin Unified increased almost five-fold. Infection rates in all three districts, and others, continue to track upward this month.
Despite the increases, the number of current Covid infections is far lower than the spike in January. And the mask requirements, regular Covid testing and social distancing that students experienced at the beginning of the school year are mostly gone.
“The attitude is we are going to plow through this, whatever increase that could possibly hit us,” said Brett McFadden, superintendent of Nevada Joint Union High School District. “We will push through. We haven’t seen the same degree of sickness we saw before.”
The district, which serves 2,668 students in Grass Valley, had five cases of Covid in all of April and 10 in the first 11 days of May.
Nevada Joint Union, which dropped its mask mandate because of protests a few weeks before the state removed the requirement, isn’t likely to bring masking back even if the state requires it again, McFadden said.
“With the controversy we went through two months ago concerning masks, I think that horse has left the barn,” he said. “Even if the state would mandate a return to masking, I don’t think we would see sufficient compliance with that.”
The increase in recent cases is due, in part, to one of the latest variants of Covid – omicron BA.2 – which is more infectious than previous variants but does not seem to increase disease severity. BA.2 is the dominant variant in most regions of California.
“We are in a much different situation than we were in the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dean Blumberg, a UC Davis Health System pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we had no immunity to Covid. No one had experienced it before. It overwhelmed the health care systems.”
Now, Blumberg says, the virus is much less of a threat because much of the population has partial immunity through immunization or a previous infection. As a result, the vast majority of those who have become ill during this uptick have not been hospitalized.
Although people should continue to wear masks when inside and try to maintain social distance from people outside their family, it isn’t feasible to require high school students to wear masks to the prom, he said. Ideally, testing and vaccination would be required to attend the dances, which are often held in large spaces like gyms, where there is more air to diffuse a virus, he said.
“Most kids aren’t going to wear a mask,” he said. “They probably won’t dance with their masks on. They are going to try to sneak a kiss or something.”
San Mateo Union High School District, which still requires that masks be worn on its campuses, didn’t require them for the prom at the art museum, said Kevin Skelly, superintendent. The district also offered, but did not require, testing before the event.
District policies changed after the outbreak, with all subsequent proms requiring students to wear masks indoors and show proof of a negative Covid test. The district also took part in a state pilot program that brought specially trained dogs onto campus to sniff out Covid.
“I just think we have tried to do both things — be safe and have lots of activities for kids,” Skelly said.
It’s not certain that the 21 McClatchy High School students who tested positive for Covid after attending the junior prom were exposed at the event or at other social events held around that time, said Alexander Goldberg, communications manager for Sacramento City Unified School District.
Students who attended the prom were required to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test as they entered, and masks were strongly encouraged, Goldberg said.
Because of the surge of cases, district officials approved new protocols for indoor events on Wednesday that require everyone participating in indoor extracurricular activities to either remain masked or show proof of a new negative Covid test.
“End of year events like prom are rites of passage for our students,” said Victoria Flores, the district’s director of student support and health services. “With the mental health impact of the pandemic – these types of extracurricular events typically bring hope and joy for those attending and engaging. As Covid remains a concern, this is the balance we continue to weigh.”
The district, which serves 43,000 students, had 227 active cases of Covid as of Tuesday. District officials will consider returning to masking if Covid levels in the community rise to “medium,” based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metric. The district will automatically return to masking if the community reaches the “high” level, Flores said.
Sacramento County has had an increase in Covid cases but still has “low” levels of Covid, based on the CDC metric.
“We have learned that our Covid protocols for day-to-day are pretty solid,” Flores said. “We are constantly doubling down on them and making sure we are following them.”
The Los Angeles Department of Public Health also updated its guidelines because of the increase in Covid cases, requiring students in the Los Angeles Unified School District to continue to wear masks indoors for 10 days if they had been exposed to Covid but do not have symptoms. The department also has altered the definition of close contacts, which could require full indoor classrooms to mask as a result of exposure.
Pacific Grove Unified School District, on the Monterey Peninsula, could have a mask mandate again soon. The district’s school board agreed in April that it would reinstate indoor mask mandates if the county’s seven-day positivity rate increased to more than 5% and there is a seven-day average of more than 10 cases per 100,000 Monterey County residents, according to the Monterey Herald. On Thursday, the county had reached 12.4 cases per 100,000 and had a 4.8% positivity rate.
Esther Kim, a junior and student member of the Chino Valley Unified school board, is aware there has been a surge in cases of Covid in the state, but she doesn’t think it has impacted her school district much.
“It didn’t raise that big of a conversation as it would have if Covid just started,” Kim said. “Everyone is exhausted with dealing with Covid and Covid protocols.”
The district had 72 cases of Covid on Tuesday, according to its website. About a quarter of the student population continues to wear a mask to school, Kim said.
“We are pushing for just returning to normal,” she said. “Everything in person. Make everyone feel like everyone is back to pre-Covid and make sure all of our students are recovering from the (emotional) damage Covid has caused.”
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