Students shuffling onto campus at Junipero Serra Elementary School on Tuesday were greeted by neon picket signs and teachers advocating for more safety supplies as COVID-19 cases continue to soar.
“This week has been hard, one-third of my class was out yesterday,” said second-grade teacher Jessi Leary Duquette. “We have several classes where a teacher is sick and there are no subs.”
Duquette was among a dozen or so teachers, parents and students who rallied outside of J. Serra Elementary, calling on San Francisco Unified School District to ramp up efforts to provide students and staff with COVID-19 testing and KN95 masks.
The issue has been acutely pronounced over the past week with hundreds of teachers out sick and COVID-19 cases reaching all-new highs. Although hospitalizations resulting from the disease have remained far lower than with previous variants and surges, many still fear getting sick or passing COVID on to loved ones who are high risk.
Changes are underway, albeit slowly, as demand for rapid test kits and KN95 masks have outstripped supply.
SFUSD conducted more than 4,900 rapid tests from Jan. 2 to Sunday, Superintendent Vincent Matthews said during a press briefing on Tuesday. The district also began distributing 2,200 home self-test kits, in addition to 56,000 test kits from the California Department of Public Health that arrived after winter break.
Matthews said 46,000 test kits also have been delivered to school sites from Color, The City’s COVID-19 testing partner, and that Color completed nearly 10,000 tests from Jan. 3 to Sunday.
“The district was not created to be a testing agency,” said Matthews. “We are working to keep schools as safe as possible so our students can continue to learn in person.”
The rapid tests are already being placed in students’ hands, providing a much-needed sigh of relief for school staff and parents, including those who showed support for teachers Tuesday by holding signs or honking their horns after dropping off their kids.
“My son came home with tests yesterday; that was really amazing. Last week, my son had a low-grade fever and I spent three hours trying to get a COVID test. Imagine the teachers and every family going through this,” said Judy Lee Haworth, PTA president at J. Serra and a parent of a second-grade student, who was supporting teachers at the picket.
From Jan. 1 through Friday, 134 staff and 365 students across the district self-reported positive COVID tests. But it’s unclear exactly how many students and staff are currently positive. Unlike the PCR testing and rapid tests that are available on school sites, reporting is voluntary for the tens of thousands of rapid tests that are now heading home to students and staff.
That fact has led some infectious disease experts to believe universal testing is not as useful, especially with the omicron variant, which has been shown to lead to less severe disease among vaccinated and boosted individuals.
“We really need to view this with a 2022 context. If there isn’t universal testing, I think that is just fine,” said Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of COVID Response at UCSF Parnassus Emergency Department.
Still, many teachers and families have been scrambling to adhere to the district’s policy to return to school. At J. Serra, one teacher who had an exposure this week couldn’t find a test, so a parent drove one to her house in the evening so she could use one before returning to work the next day.
Teachers and students who test positive for COVID-19 can return to class after five days of isolation if they no longer have a fever and if they can show a negative PCR or rapid antigen test.
About a block away from the protest, a sign on a community message board in Bernal Heights advertised a GoFundMe to raise money for KN95 masks. On Tuesday, the organizer, who owns a store in the neighborhood, posted an update saying they were able to procure enough KN95 masks through donations for all staff at Dolores Huerta Elementary School.
Meanwhile, unauthorized testing sites are popping up around The City, health officials said last week.
“We know demand for testing is high and we are taking the necessary steps to address the situation and looking into the appropriate enforcement measures,” a spokesperson for Department of Public Health said in an email. “People should use caution and not use testing sites that seem too good to be true because they may not be trustworthy. We urge members of the community to visitto find testing site options.”
Last week, one group of fed-up teachers planned a sick out to protest a lack of timely testing options for students. But the teachers picketing Tuesday decided that strategy didn’t resonate with them, and instead tried to get their message across differently.
“We wanted this to be a community event and didn’t want it to adversely affect the classroom or students and families,” said Duquette. “We are trying to get more people involved for what we feel like are really reasonable requests to keep our kids and staff safe.”