SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Now that schools are back in session, parents are mastering this year’s new school vocabulary: Modified quarantine, antigen vs. PCR testing and the so-called Swiss cheese model for keeping classrooms safe, which has become the butt of a few jokes.
But aside from a common pandemic lingo there is little similarity in how California schools are applying Covid-19 rules, leading to a dizzying patchwork of approaches that parents and teachers say can be confusing and frustrating.
While California has a few statewide requirements for all schools, such as requiring all public and private school teachers and students to wear face masks indoors, and a vaccinate-or-test rule for teachers starting in mid-October, many other details are left to local school officials. That includes the who, when, where and how to test for Covid-19, and ever-shifting quarantine rules.
Some large urban districts like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland tell students to mask up for outdoor recess, while many others do not.
Some schools have rigorous on-site mandatory Covid-19 testing programs, but many don’t.
Across the state, parents who want to see more testing are looking to the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation's second-largest — as a model. The state’s largest school district has an ambitious program that mandates weekly on-site testing for all 600,000 students and 75,000 employees.
“It’s crazy that a school district as huge as Los Angeles can pull it off, and we’re just twiddling our thumbs over here,” said Samantha Benton, a mother of two in Sacramento, where only voluntary testing is offered.
Last week, California became the first in the nation to say it will require the coronavirus vaccine for all public and private schools once the shot receives full regulatory approval, which may not kick in until the next academic year. Until then, the decision is up to local districts.
A few of California’s biggest school districts, including Los Angeles and Oakland, have mandated vaccinations for students 12 and over. San Diego Unified will require vaccines for staff and students 16 and up.
The California School Boards Association calls it “a patchwork of different methods” that is not the most effective approach and is troublesome because it asks school officials to act as medical experts.
Pandemic-era conflicts between school districts and teachers have entered a new phase. The Oakland teachers union said its district guidelines are “contradictory or confusing" and not enforced. The union is seeking mandatory weekly testing and monitors to enforce mask wearing.
Teachers “are tired of waiting for a major outbreak ... to uphold commonsense safety measures," the union said in a statement this week.
Nationwide, as in California, the rules depend on where you live, and often on politics. Republican governors in Arizona, Iowa and Florida have banned school mask mandates, but many parents, local leaders and courts are pushing back. Some states have standard policies for all districts, while others allow schools to set their own rules. At least nine states have explicitly said schools cannot require vaccinations, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
Vaccinations are one element of the “Swiss cheese model” of pandemic defense, a metaphor for multiple layers of protection to block the spread of germs. A cartoon-like drawing of the model, with 10 slices of cheese, has become a regular part of school safety presentations.
“They show this at like every board meeting and every school Zoom,” said Sacramento mother of two Kristin Goree. “In group chats it’s like, ‘No! Not that again!’"
Goree agrees with the concept of combining layers of protection, like social distancing, masks, hand-washing, testing and ventilation. “But our school is not implementing every layer of cheese — like mandatory testing,” said Goree, whose children are signed up for optional weekly testing while most of their classmates are not.