On the first day of in-person instruction in the spring, Madison Park Primary student Paris Jameson, 6, signs her name on a health agreement pledging to follow COVID safety rules. Credit: Ashley McBride

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Oakland’s 2021-22 school year starts August 9, and school district officials are navigating rapidly changing pandemic conditions. Even with the surging delta variant, public health and education leaders have reiterated their support for a full reopening of school buildings for all students, and minimizing the amount of time that students spend away from school. 

More information is coming out each day about the delta variant, which appears to be more transmissible than other forms of the coronavirus, and school officials have emphasized that current guidance from Alameda County and California’s departments of public health could change. 

“Things are constantly changing, so just know that the guidelines that we are talking about today may be different than the decisions and guidelines that are coming from the state, the county, and the CDC tomorrow or next week or next month,” said Sailaja Suresh, OUSD’s COVID-19 lead, during a family information session last week. “What we are preparing for and what we are expecting to do will continue to evolve as the state guidance comes down to us.”

Here’s what families can expect at Oakland Unified School District campuses this fall. For more information, you can read OUSD’s COVID FAQ.  

Masking

The California Department of Public Health has mandated that all students, teachers, staff, and visitors wear masks while indoors on school campuses. That was initially out of sync with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which initially recommended that only those who are unvaccinated wear masks at schools. The CDC later updated its guidance, after evaluating more evidence about the transmissibility of the delta variant, to note that everyone on campus should be masked. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that everyone older than 2 wear a mask indoors. 

During lunch, students will be required to wear their masks while in line and getting food, and can take them off to eat. During outdoor activities, like recess or physical education classes, students can remove their masks but should put them back on while in locker rooms or in the gym, and before entering the building.

Distancing

Social distancing in classrooms and hallways is no longer required, according to state guidelines. Returning to full, in-person instruction is a priority, and distancing is not necessary when other mitigation efforts are implemented, according to public health guidance from the state. 

“What we found is that the role of distancing when masking and vaccination is present is not as significant as we initially thought,” said Dr. Emily Frank, a UCSF pediatrician and teacher at Life Academy in Oakland. 

At campuses where it’s possible, students will be encouraged to eat lunch outside to reduce the risk of spreading germs while their face masks are off. If they need to eat indoors, students will be spaced apart, said Sailaja Suresh, who has been leading Oakland Unified School District’s COVID-19 response. 

“In terms of scheduling, we’re making it so that the portion of time actually spent in the cafeteria eating is reduced as much as possible,” Suresh said during a family information session last week. “We’re also seeing, wherever possible, how to create opportunities for more distancing, for more staggering, and for more eating outdoors depending on the layout of the campus.”

Quarantining

Whether or not someone will have to quarantine themselves and not attend school because they’ve been exposed to the virus differs based on vaccination status. Health and school officials want to reduce the amount of time that students spend away from school, therefore quarantining is not required in every case of exposure. If a vaccinated student has been around someone who tested positive, and that student is not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, they can continue coming to school. If an unvaccinated student has been around a confirmed positive case, and is asymptomatic, the student can continue coming to school if they get tested twice a week. Any student who tests positive must quarantine for 10 days. 

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated students who develop symptoms can return to school either at the end of the 10 days or after a negative test, if they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours and have improving symptoms. 

But these protocols, particularly for vaccinated students, could be revisited as officials learn more about the delta variant and whether vaccinated people can still transmit it.

“With the earlier versions of the variants, folks who were vaccinated were not making significant viral loads, and thought not be able to transmit,” Dr. Frank told The Oaklandside. “With the delta variant, even people who are vaccinated can have quite high viral loads in their noses. What we’re still trying to figure out is whether or not those high viral loads are transmissible. If it turns out that there is transmissibility for that, that may change the guidelines relating to quarantining after exposure.”   

Health screenings

OUSD schools implemented daily health screenings last year for students, families, and staff to submit before they came to campus. The screening is no longer required for OUSD students, but staff, volunteers, and contractors must still complete the form, which asks about symptoms and possible COVID exposure. 

While the daily health screening isn’t mandatory for students anymore, Dr. Frank, the pediatrician and teacher, emphasized that one of the most important safety measures this year will be monitoring symptoms, even—and especially—small discomforts.

“Things we didn’t used to think of as sick, like a headache, a runny nose or a mild sore throat, we have to think about as symptoms of illness. Stay home and get tested,” she said. “That’s hard because many of us are used to continuing our regular lives when we have a bit of a cough or sore throat. Really be vigilant about any kind of new or different symptoms. If there’s one message I can drive home besides please get vaccinated, it’s that one.”

Outbreaks

State guidance considers a school outbreak to be at least three linked cases within two weeks at one site, and a major outbreak is at least 20 linked cases at one site within the same time frame. Because health and school officials want to avoid shutting down schools again, a closure isn’t recommended during outbreaks, but OUSD leaders will decide on a case-by-case basis when one is necessary, in consultation with county health officials. 

When a positive case has been reported among students or staff, the school principal will be notified to determine who was in close contact with the positive case and whether quarantining is necessary. 

Vaccinations

While vaccinations have not been mandated for students or staff, the district is strongly encouraging everyone to be vaccinated against COVID-19. All adults are currently eligible for vaccination, and the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children age 12 and up. OUSD has been hosting pop-up vaccination clinics on school campuses, including this week:

Westlake Middle School
Wednesday, Aug. 4
3:30 to 6 p.m.
Pre-register: https://my.primary.health/r/clayworthvaccine?registration_type=default 

Westlake Middle School
Thursday, Aug. 5
3 to 6 p.m.
Pre-register: https://my.primary.health/r/clayworthvaccine?registration_type=default 

Oakland Technical High School
Friday, Aug. 6
3:30 to 6 p.m.
No pre-registration, walk-up only

Urban Promise Academy
Saturday, Aug. 7
9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Pre-register: https://my.primary.health/r/wellspringpharmacy-mobile 

Elmhurst United Middle School
Saturday, Aug. 7
11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Pre-register: https://my.primary.health/r/clayworthvaccine?registration_type=default 

Testing 

OUSD is recommending that unvaccinated people be tested one to two times per week. The district also recommends that anyone who is symptomatic, regardless of their vaccination status, or has been in close contact with someone who tested positive, also be tested. 

OUSD will have ten testing locations across the district, which are open to all staff, students, and their families. The testing locations will also have at-home testing kits available. Appointments are available at ousd.org/covidtestingappointments

When there is a positive case, the district will send rapid response teams to the campus with tests for those who had close contact. 

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.