Students, teachers and staff at local schools returned from winter break to an “all time high” number of weekly reported Covid-19 cases, according to Morgan Hill Unified School District staff.
For the week of Jan. 3-9, a total of 177 students and 24 staff members within MHUSD tested positive for Covid-19. MHUSD spokeswoman Lanae Bays said the spike in cases came from students and staff who were infected with Covid-19 while out of school on winter break.
Those numbers dwarf previous Covid case numbers reported within MHUSD, with the weekly tally varying between seven and 23 (students and staff collectively) dating back to Dec. 5, according to district staff.
In an effort to help contain the spread, the district in early January distributed 8,100 at-home antigen Covid testing kits to the entire student body. On Jan. 2, the day before the end of the schools’ winter break, 35 volunteers distributed many of the kits to families they could reach, Bays said. The remainder of the kits were distributed on the first day back to school.
School districts throughout the region have been dealing with a similar surge in Covid cases, as the highly contagious Omicron variant continues to spread. The recent surge has thus taken a toll on student and staff attendance.
MHUSD did not provide detailed weekly attendance numbers before press time, but teachers and principals at the Jan. 11 board of education meeting reported significant absences. Jackson Academy of Math and Music Principal Patrick Buchser, speaking as president of the Morgan Hill Educational Leaders Association, said some schools reported up to 25% of the student body absent upon the return from winter break.
Jim Levis, an eighth-grade teacher at Britton Middle School and President of the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers, said 15 of his 34 students in one class were absent one day just after the return to school.
Levis and other MHUSD staff members told the board Jan. 11 that the recent surge highlights the district’s lack of Covid leave for employees. Levis explained that a state program providing such leave for educational staff who have to miss school due to quarantine requirements expired at the end of September 2021, and the MHFT has been trying to convince MHUSD to implement a local Covid leave program.
Currently, if a teacher or faculty member misses school due to a positive Covid test or Covid-related illness, they have to use their regular sick leave days, Levis said. If a teacher has no accrued sick days, they have to take days off without pay if they catch Covid-19.
An exception is if an employee who tests positive for Covid-19 can prove they caught the virus while at work, the district will pay for their leave, Levis said. This policy was recently extended beyond its previous cutoff at the end of December.
However, Levis said, it can be difficult for one to prove where they caught Covid-19.
Sobrato High School teacher Avery Unterreiner added that some teachers, like herself, might be trying to save up their sick days in case they have a child in the future, as MHUSD also does not provide maternity leave for staff.
The district’s lack of Covid-specific leave is “incentivizing teachers to come to work sick and lie about it because they are not going to get paid anymore if they don’t come to work,” Unterreiner said. “That’s just not a functional way to keep our schools open and keep people healthy, and to keep people safe.”
Levis said he has been asking the board since October to consider a Covid leave policy that “covers all employees for all Covid-related absences.” However, the board has “ignored” his comments.
He suggested the district could use some of its $36 million in reserve funds to pay for it.
“Anything less than coverage for all Covid-related absences is insulting, and I do not believe that is the board’s intent,” Levis said.
District staff did not respond to a request for comment on the teachers’ concerns about Covid leave.
Public health experts and district staff think the current Omicron-driven surge is waning, and MHUSD officials have not discussed the possibility of closing the schools and returning to remote learning.
Short-term independent study at home has been available for students affected by Covid since the school year started. So far, 280 MHUSD students this year have been on short-term home study, which lasts between 5-30 days, according to district staff. That number is expected to go up after the first couple weeks back from winter break.
State directives currently prevent MHUSD and other school districts from shutting down in-person instruction, despite the rising Covid numbers. A Jan. 7 joint statement from County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan and County Public Health Director Dr. Sara Cody reminded school districts that the state’s waiver that allowed for distance learning in lieu of in-person instruction expired June 30.
“Keeping our students, staff and families safe remains our top priority,” Dewan stated. “We are working alongside our school districts to protect in-person learning and practice the appropriate safety protocols.”