DANVILLE – On the day after Contra Costa County returned to the most restrictive purple tier for reopening during the pandemic, some students in Danville returned to class. A week later, all the staff in one classroom and half the students were confirmed to have tested positive with the COVID-19 virus.
The highly contagious nature of COVID-19 is what many teachers, parents and even students in various districts throughout the Bay Area have been warning about in the discussions on whether to return to in-person learning. Despite the outbreak, the district did not shut down in-person instruction, but did have the school disinfected.
The San Ramon Valley Unified School District confirmed this week that seven staff and students (five staff members, two students) at one school tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, after reopening certain classrooms on Nov. 17. The virus has also been suspected of spreading to family members of staff infected in that classroom.
The district is in the midst of a limited reopening plan that allows some groups to return to in-person learning, including those in a program for students with severe developmental disabilities at Del Amigo High School campus. The outbreak occurred in the alternative school, located behind San Ramon Valley High School in Danville.
Other groups allowed back include special education students and English language learners.
“I do want to assure our school community that our district will look at each situation honestly and when appropriate take steps to fortify our health practices, as our commitment to staff and student health remains our greatest priority,” Superintendent John Malloy said in a statement to this newspaper.
The district does not have any plan to shut down the Del Amigo school, or pause reopening plans. Starting Jan. 5, parents of all students in the district can choose whether they want their child to return to in-person learning, or continue full remote learning for the rest of the school year.
Even though the county went back to the purple tier on Nov. 16, the district announced that because it already had set plans and was preparing to open, it was allowed to do so as scheduled with the approval of county health officials.
The superintendent said those who tested positive or were in direct contact with those who tested positive at Del Amigo have been notified and are quarantining. The entire Del Amigo campus was cleaned and ready to receive students again on Tuesday, when they returned to campus after the Thanksgiving break.
One of the five staff members infected is Jan Jimenez, an autism paraprofessional. She said in an interview that when she and the other four paraprofessionals returned to the classroom on Nov. 17, two of the classroom’s four students appeared sick. Fearing for their own safety, the staff members took the students’ temperatures, and both had fevers over 100 degrees.
After the high temperatures were reported to the administration, only one student was sent home, yet returned to school the next day. Although the classroom has a teacher, the district is allowing teachers to opt out of returning in-person and teach remotely.
Staff members also were told they weren’t allowed to take the temperatures of students anymore, Jimenez said; temperatures would be taken at home by the students’ guardians before they arrived at school.
District spokeswoman Denise Jennison said she had not heard about the students having a high temperature that first day back, and said she could not comment without more information. Parents and guardians are required to take a self-assessment, including temperature checks, before sending their children to school.
According to the school district’s reopening guide, if someone in a classroom has COVID-19 symptoms such as a fever, cough or difficulty breathing, the Contra Costa Health Services recommendation for immediate action is to send them home, and advise them to contact their doctor on whether or not to be tested. The schools and / or classroom are allowed to remain open.
Despite the staff members notifying the administration that the students had fevers, all the students and staff continued to be in the classroom until Friday, Nov. 20, Jimenez said. Then the next week, they were all on Thanksgiving break. She said the district should have been aware of the situation and immediately instructed the staff to quarantine.
The students in the class at Del Amigo range in age from 18 to 22 and have severe physical and developmental disabilities; they are part of the special education program. Some drool and place their hands in their mouth, so it can be difficult for them to keep their masks on, Jimenez said.
Just days after she was required to return to the classroom, Jimenez herself started to feel coronavirus symptoms. She was tested for the virus on Nov. 23 and her fear was realized: She had COVID-19.
“We really feel this should have never happened,” she said. “We should not go into a work situation that was unsafe.”
Now she’s extremely fatigued, has a cough and shortness of breath. To make matters worse, she spread the virus to her husband. They also fear they may have exposed her husband’s 94-year-old mother. Jimenez is now under quarantine at home, but said she may have to return to work on Dec. 7.
“I was angry, frustrated and really disappointed that our safety needs hadn’t been followed through,” Jimenez said.
Ann Katzburg, president of the San Ramon Valley Education Association, said although none of the union’s members were infected, it’s still of utmost concern.
“We’re really disappointed there was an outbreak,” she said. “We’re working really hard to make sure that we tighten the level of protection so we can ensure that everyone is safe.”