COVID-19 update: OCDE employees pitch in to support schools experiencing staffing shortages

OCDE continues to track the latest developments related to COVID-19 while following guidance from the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency. Below is our running digest, with newer stories posted at the top.

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Updated at 3:49 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2022

OCDE employees pitch in to support local schools experiencing Omicron-driven staffing shortages

To help school districts weather staffing shortages during the latest COVID-19 surge, about 100 managers from OCDE’s Educational Services division have been deployed to local campuses this month.  

Their roles have included working with students in classrooms, assisting with contact tracing and performing other duties necessary for school operations. 

Dr. Christine Olmstead, OCDE’s associate superintendent of Educational Services, said members of her team began their temporary assignments last week and have since reported for duty in all of the county’s 28 school districts.

“We plan to provide the support through the 28th to get through the surge,” she said.

The help hasn’t gone unnoticed. Several campuses posted messages of gratitude on their social media accounts. Some staff members and students even wrote thank-you cards and notes.

Julie Roney, an OCDE STEM coordinator who has assisted in multiple classrooms in the Orange Unified School District, said a highlight has been seeing the appreciation from students and staff.

“I have tried to be extremely compassionate with the students and reassure them daily that we are all going to do our best and be kind,” she said, “and we will get through this a day at a time.”

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Updated at 9:07 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2022

OCDE receives shipment of N95 masks for distribution to districts, charter schools

On the heels of receiving at-home COVID-19 testing kits, OCDE has taken delivery of more than 1.7 million N95 masks from the state.

Initially characterized as a 10-day supply, the inventory of N95 masks represents less than 25 percent of what’s been committed by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Nevertheless, the masks on hand are being made available to school districts and charter schools across the county to pick up and distribute to their students and staff. 

As with the testing kits, districts and schools will have the discretion to determine how best to manage and dispense their available supplies. 

N95 masks are tight-fitting respirators that, when used properly, filter out at least 95 percent of particles in the air, including large and small particles. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they offer wearers a level of protection against COVID-19 that is heightened when compared to cloth face coverings or surgical masks.

Face coverings have been a requirement this school year for students and staff who are indoors on school campuses. Moreover, state health officials last month reinstated a broad mask mandate for all indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. But the type of mask remains an individual preference as long as it effectively covers the mouth and nose.

While public health experts recommend N95 masks, they remain a voluntary option. Moreover, they are not compatible with younger children based on their size, and they may not achieve a proper fit for users with facial hair.

OCDE has been notified that a smaller shipment of child-size masks is also expected as soon as this weekend.

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Updated at 9:37 a.m. on Jan. 15, 2022

Updated county health order sets guidance for school quarantines, contact tracing

The OC Health Care Agency issued an updated health order on Friday evening reflecting recent changes to the state’s guidance for quarantines, isolation and contact tracing at schools.

In alignment with this week’s recommendations from the California Department of Public Health, the order says schools and districts may choose between two response models for students who have been exposed to COVID-19.

Under the first model, exposed TK-12 students in both private and public school settings would follow standard isolation and self-quarantine protocols. This includes a modified quarantine option to continue in-person instruction if both students were wearing masks and the exposed student does not develop symptoms, continues to wear a well-fitting mask, undergoes COVID-19 testing at least twice during the five-day quarantine period, and refrains from extracurricular activities, including sports.

A second model allows for a group-tracing approach, mirroring the state’s recently revised guidance. Under this option, a cohort of students who spent more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period in the same indoor airspace with someone who had COVID-19 — a class or a club, for example — would be subject to notification, regardless of each student’s vaccination status. The communication to families would have to include specific information, including the option to continue attending school as long as they are free of any symptoms, as well as a recommendation to undergo testing three to five days after their most recent exposure.

“In the event of wide-scale and or repeated exposures, broader (grade-wide or campus-wide) once weekly testing for COVID-19 may be chosen in lieu of group notification until such time as exposure events become less frequent,” the county order states.

You can review the latest OC Health Officer’s Orders and Recommendations at: https://occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/article/oc-health-officers-orders-recommendations

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Updated at 8:32 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2022

State releases updated K-12 guidance with revised recommendations for quarantines, contact tracing

The California Department of Public Health updated its COVID-19 guidance for K-12 schools late Wednesday with revised quarantine recommendations and a modified approach to contact tracing.

The guidance, which became effective immediately, runs similar to the health order recently issued by the Orange County Health Care Agency. Here are a few early takeaways:

  • If a student who has completed the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines — or was previously infected within the last 90 days and has a lab-confirmed test — comes into contact with another student who has COVID-19, quarantine is not recommended, meaning they can participate in all school activities. If symptoms develop, they should test and stay home.
  • In the event of a close contact with a student who has not completed the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines and wasn’t previously infected within the last 90 days, the guidance says the student can attend school on a modified quarantine as long as both parties were wearing masks at the time of exposure. The exposed student must be asymptomatic, continue to mask up, undergo at least twice-weekly testing during their quarantine period, and forgo all school-based extracurricular activities, including sports and activities within the community setting.
  • In cases where both students weren’t wearing masks, or if the infected individual was not wearing a mask, a standard quarantine is required, but it can end after day five if symptoms aren’t present and the student is tested on or after day five with a negative result. If the student is unable to test, or chooses not to test, the quarantine can end after day 10 as long as there are no symptoms.
  • Noting “the shorter incubation period and increased transmissibility of variants” in California, the CDPH says an alternative approach to contact tracing may also be warranted. Rather than working to identify individual close contacts — the state acknowledges this can often be protracted — schools can send notification letters to those who spent a cumulative total of 15 minutes within a 24-hour time period in a shared indoor airspace with a contagious person. For example, if a 10th-grade student were diagnosed with COVID-19, the school would notify groups the student interacted with, which would likely include those who are in the same classes or on the same sports teams or clubs. This group-approach to notifications is a departure from contact tracing that targeted specific individuals and interactions. 
  • Based on the criteria above, students exposed within a larger group setting should get tested for COVID-19 with at least one diagnostic test obtained within three to five days after their last exposure, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status or any prior infections. Exposed students who participate in testing may continue to take part in all aspects of K-12 schooling, including sports and extracurricular activities, unless they develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19. ”In the event of wide-scale and/or repeated exposures, broader (e.g., grade-wide or campus-wide) once weekly testing for COVID-19 may be considered until such time that exposure events become less frequent,” the CDPH says.

Previous directives, including guidelines for masking, ventilation and hygiene, remain in effect and can be found in the latest COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 Schools release.

State health officials noted that California’s multi-layered approach to COVID-19 mitigation have proven to be effective.

“These other layers — such as receiving COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, wearing high-quality well-fitting masks, staying home and testing if symptomatic, and improving indoor air quality — remain crucial to school-based mitigation efforts,” the CDPH said.

For additional state resources, visit California’s Safe Schools for All Hub. For information about case counts, vaccines and testing specific to Orange County, visit ochealthinfo.com/covid.

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Updated at 10:10 a.m. on Jan. 12, 2022

Gov. Newsom signs executive order to address staffing shortages in California schools

Gov. Gavin Newsom this week signed an executive order aimed at giving schools more flexibility when it comes to short-term staffing for in-person learning.

The order, which takes effect immediately and expires on Mar. 31, will make it easier for schools and districts to hire and extend assignments to substitute teachers, while also eliminating hurdles retired teachers may face while returning to classrooms, according to the state.

“Schools nationwide returning from winter break are experiencing short-term staffing shortages that are putting a strain on operations,” Gov. Newsom said in a news release issued Tuesday. “We’re working closely with local education officials to cut red tape to allow qualified substitute teachers to help maintain safe learning environments. We are grateful for the thousands of dedicated teachers, classified staff and administrators who have worked tirelessly to provide safe learning environments for all of California’s students.”

Only schools that can prove these flexibilities will support in-person learning for students will qualify, the state said. This means that these flexibilities only apply to a school district, county office of education or charter school if school or district administrators make a written finding that the temporary flexibility will provide the support needed to maintain in-person instruction.

In related news, OCDE has asked about 100 managers within its Educational Services division to help provide support to local schools experiencing staffing shortages. Their roles could include working in classrooms, assisting with contact tracing or performing other duties necessary for school operations.

Separately, the state also indicated it will ship out personal protective equipment to school communities through county offices of education, including supplies of N95 masks.

The full order can be found on the Governor’s website.

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Updated at 9:56 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2022

More at-home COVID-19 testing kits from state arrive at OCDE for distribution to students

A new shipment of at-home COVID-19 antigen tests arrived Tuesday at OCDE for distribution to local schools.

Two trucks dispatched by the California Department of Public Health delivered 256,420 iHealth COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test kits as part of the state’s winter push to get COVID-19 tests into the home of every public school student. 

Representatives from Orange County’s 28 independent school districts and dozens of charter schools were contacted Tuesday and told the supplies were ready to be picked up. Each district and charter school has determined its own process for distributing their testing kits to local families.

Last week, more than 191,000 On/Go antigen test kits were delivered by CDPH, covering about 40 percent of Orange County’s public school students. The new shipments are expected to fulfill the state’s commitment to provide at least one test for every public school student.

Separately, the state has also indicated it will ship out personal protective equipment to school communities through county offices of education, including supplies of N95 masks.

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Updated at 1:53 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2022

OC Health Care Agency confirms pediatric death, urges preventive measures as case counts rise

With case counts spiking to levels previously unseen, the OC Health Care Agency this week confirmed Orange County’s third COVID-related pediatric death. 

The agency said a child under the age of 5 died in December of complications related to a COVID-19 infection.

“We have lost another precious young life to this terrible virus,” said HCA Director and County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau. “It is our third pediatric death in Orange County since the start of the pandemic. This is yet another somber reminder that we must continue to do everything we can to protect our loved ones, especially our little ones under 5 years of age who are not able to be vaccinated.”

Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 5, the county’s seven-day average case rate jumped from 25.5 to 67.5 per 100,000 people, and the average number of daily COVID-19 cases rose from 822 to 2,179, according to the HCA.

Fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, the positivity rate also increased from 6.5 to 16.2 percent, hospitalizations rose from 453 to 673, and ICU admissions were up to 114 per day. The HCA noted that 87 percent of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

Levels OC hasn’t seen

“COVID-19 has been spreading very quickly,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, deputy county health officer. “Cases are reaching levels that we haven’t seen throughout this pandemic.” 

The most important step local residents can take, she said, is to “get vaccinated and boosted to maximize your immunity to COVID-19 and reduce your chance of getting severely infected.”

The HCA is further advising getting tested 24 hours before — and three to five days after — gathering or traveling. 

Self-collection, at-home COVID-19 test kits are available at no cost to people who work or live in Orange County. They can be ordered online at ochealthinfo.com/covidtest. An email address is required for each individual requesting a test kit, which includes a prepaid shipping return label. Results are provided within 24 to 48 hours upon receipt of the specimen. 

Health officials stressed that people without symptoms, or who have mild symptoms and are at low risk of severe disease, should not go to the hospital or emergency room to obtain screening testing. Hospitals are focused on people who are sick and need urgent care.

Other developments

  • California has extended its indoor mask mandate to Feb. 15. The state announced the mandate for all indoor public settings last month, regardless of vaccination status. It was originally set to expire on Jan. 15.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded booster shot eligibility to include children ages 12 to 17. Currently, only the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is authorized and recommended for that age group. The CDC is also recommending a Pfizer-BioNTech booster five months (rather than six) after individuals receive their primary two doses of the vaccine. Moreover, the CDC says moderately or severely immunocompromised 5-to-11-year-olds should receive an additional primary dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine 28 days after their second shot.

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Updated at 2:14 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2022

State health officials issue new guidance for large events; test kits are picked up by OC districts

New guidance from the California Department of Public Health will lower the threshold for what’s considered a “Mega Event,” a designation that triggers added safety protocols.

Starting Jan. 15, a Mega Event will be defined as a gathering or activity that draws more than 500 attendees indoors or 5,000 attendees outdoors, according to CDPH guidance posted on Dec. 31.

The older definition, which expires on Jan. 14, set the bar at more than 1,000 guests for indoor events and 10,000 or more outdoor attendees.

For indoor Mega Events, such as conventions, conferences and sporting events, attendees must show verification of fully vaccinated status or a negative COVID-19 test result before they enter, and all guests must adhere to the latest CDPH guidance for face coverings.

For outdoor Mega Events like food festivals, outside concerts and parades, verification of fully vaccinated status or a pre-entry negative COVID test result is strongly recommended for attendees, who must also comply with California’s mask mandates.

Under the new guidance that takes effect Jan. 15, safety measures must be well-publicized in all event communications — including the reservation and ticketing systems — to ensure guests are aware of testing and vaccination requirements in advance.

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, the statewide seven-day average case rate for COVID-19 increased by 410 percent, and the number of hospitalized patients increased 63 percent, according to the CDPH.

“Ongoing vigilance is necessary to protect against COVID-19,” the CDPH guidance says. “This continues to be the case for large, indoor events, which have the potential to cause large, substantial, and severe outbreaks.”

The latest Mega Event guidance can be found on the California Department of Public Health website.

Other developments on Thursday:

  • School districts across Orange County continued to pick up thousands of in-home COVID-19 tests from OCDE for distribution to their local families. On Wednesday, more than 191,000 rapid antigen test kits were delivered by the California Department of Public Health as part an ambitious statewide program intended to get COVID-19 tests into the homes of students at the start of the new semester. While the state’s first shipment will only cover about 40 percent of OC’s public school students, officials have indicated additional supplies are coming. Based on 2020-21 enrollment data, Orange County will need 456,572 testing kits to guarantee one for every public school student.

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Updated at 1:48 p.m. on Jan. 5, 2022

First shipments of at-home test kits for students arrive in OC

Three large trucks carrying COVID-19 rapid antigen tests from the California Department of Public Health arrived at OCDE’s offices on Wednesday morning, but additional shipments will be needed to cover all Orange County students.

With supplies said to be based on 2020-21 enrollment data, the state indicated it would provide 456,572 rapid antigen testing kits to distribute to OC families as part of a program aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 on campuses as students returned from winter break. 

Fork lift carries pallet

On Wednesday, only 191,376 testing kits were delivered for the county — or about 42 percent of what’s expected.

OCDE was following up with state health officials to determine why it received less than half of the kits that were committed and when additional shipments will arrive. Meanwhile, as some other counties reported similar issues, department staff were working to get available tests out to local districts and schools as quickly as possible, revising immediate allocations based on the inventory on hand.

OCDE will notify districts and schools when additional kits are secured.

The “On/Go COVID-19 Antigen Self-Test” kits delivered by the CDPH contain two tests each, but the individual tests inside are not intended to be unpackaged and distributed separately. Instead, every box of two tests is designed to be used by one student under the supervision of a family member, allowing for two tests to be taken by a single child within the span of several days.

Local schools and districts will notify their families when student testing kits are ready to be picked up.

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Updated at 9:04 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2022

Some OC students may only need to isolate for 5 days after testing positive. Here’s why.

There have been some questions about ​​local, state and federal quarantine and isolation guidelines — and which rules apply to local schools.

On Dec. 31, the Orange County Health Care Agency released the County of Orange Health Officer’s Orders and Strong Recommendations, reflecting recent changes made by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health. The order was revised slightly on Jan. 4.

The biggest takeaway is that isolation timelines have been reduced for some individuals to five days in alignment with the CDC’s recommendations. This also applies to K-12 students when certain conditions are met.

Here are a few highlights from the county order:

  • Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 may self-isolate for five days and return to work or school if symptoms have improved, they’ve had no fever for 24 hours, and they have a negative COVID-19 test (antigen is preferred) on or after day five. 

  • If the person does not test, the isolation period is 10 days.

  • Students in both private and public transitional kindergarten through grade 12 shall follow the same isolation and self-quarantine protocols, with the following exemption:
    • Modified Quarantine. If a student who is “not up-to-date” on their COVID-19 vaccine — more on that definition below — is exposed to a person with COVID-19 and both were wearing face coverings, the exposed student may continue to attend school for in-person instruction during the duration of their quarantine period if the following conditions are met:
      • The exposed student is asymptomatic; AND
      • The exposed student continues to appropriately wear a well-fitting face covering; AND
      • The exposed student undergoes testing at least twice during their quarantine period of five days; AND
      • The exposed student refrains from participation in all extracurricular activities at school, including sports, and activities within the community setting for the duration of their quarantine period. The exposed student may participate in all required instructional components of the school day, except activities where a mask cannot be worn, such as while playing certain musical instruments. The exposed student may also eat meals on campus.
    • Note: If an exposed student who is not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccine is either unable to test or chooses not to test, they shall quarantine for 10 days after their most recent exposure.

  • The HCA says anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 should continue to wear a well-fitting mask around other people through at least day 10.

The county order says individuals are considered up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccination if they have completed a primary series of COVID-19 vaccine and have either received a booster shot or are not yet recommended to receive a booster dose based on current CDC guidance.

The full county order can be found here: https://occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/article/oc-health-officers-orders-recommendations

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Updated at 2:32 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2022

Here’s what OC schools are doing as students return from winter break

With most students set to return from winter break on Monday amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, OC schools are taking a number of steps to reduce on-campus transmission, from enforcing state mask mandates and quarantine protocols to tracking new cases and reporting close contacts.

As we’ve shared previously, public schools are also expecting to receive from the state as many as two COVID-19 rapid antigen tests for every student. The idea is that families will be given the chance to pick up the kits and test their children at home. As of Sunday afternoon, supplies were said to be en route to the Orange County Department of Education, where they’ll be sorted and collected by district staff.

Locally elected school boards and district superintendents are responsible for approving and implementing school safety plans with input from their stakeholders, so specific measures may vary from district to district. But all plans must meet or exceed standards set by the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Here’s what the CDPH and the HCA require coming out of the winter break:

  • Face coverings must be worn by all students and staff while they’re indoors at school. Masks are not required outdoors, but they are encouraged. Physical distancing is encouraged but not required based on campus space limitations.
  • All school employees must show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or get tested on a weekly basis. 
  • Following close contacts, quarantines — or modified quarantines — will vary based on vaccination status and whether one or both parties is wearing a mask. Updated details can be found in the County Health Officer’s latest order, which was published Dec. 31 and revised Jan. 4.
  • Gov. Gavin Newsom has also announced a phased approach for adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for K-12 students. That timeline is set to begin after federal authorities grant full approval for doses to younger age groups.

“As we anticipated, Orange County COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising steeply due to increased gatherings and traveling over the holidays,” Dr. Clayton Chau, the county health officer and HCA director, said in a statement on Dec. 30. 

“The risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 is extremely high during this time as more people are in close contact with one another,” Dr. Chau said. “We ask that you please continue to exercise precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including limiting or avoid gathering with others if possible. As always, get vaccinated, get boosted, get tested if you experience symptoms or three to five days after becoming exposed, wear your mask indoors, and stay home if you are sick.”

For more information about case counts, vaccines and testing in Orange County, visit ochealthinfo.com/covid.

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COVID-19 updates from 2021

COVID-19 updates from 2020