Berkeley school district sees high staff, teacher absentee rate amid COVID-19 isolation

Photo of a BUSD school
William Webster/Staff
As a result of rising COVID-19 cases among staff at Berkeley Unified School District, many teachers have faced instances where they have been unable to find substitute teachers.

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Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, saw 62 teachers and 53 classified personnel absent from school Wednesday due to COVID-19 isolation.

The high number of absences is a trend that started Monday and is continuing today, according to BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott. She added that the school district also processed 25 positive cases by noon Wednesday, a number only previously seen in a “busy week.”

BUSD also provided more than 24,000 at-home COVID-19 tests to students and staff prior to winter break and required them to take a test Dec. 31 and another Jan. 2, McDermott added.

During the period between Dec. 24 and Wednesday morning, 7,485 people uploaded one or more of their test results. Of these people, there were 225 positive cases, meaning slightly more than 3% of the cases returned to BUSD were positive, according to McDermott.

McDermott noted that COVID-19 testing was a “key” risk mitigation strategy that successfully kept more cases out of BUSD schools.

Other risk mitigation components included requiring individuals who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate at home, McDermott noted. BUSD reports the information to public health officials as well as notifies staff and families that they may be close contacts to a positive case.

McDermott said that while the comprehensive COVID-19 contact tracing program is “highly effective,” it is strained and has led BUSD to move some of their staff from the district office to the contact tracing team.

“We successfully kept significantly over 200 cases out of our schools on Monday morning,” McDermott said. “We strongly support at-home testing and hope that there is ongoing opportunity for school districts to receive these tests, especially now during the surge.”

Full-day testing has been made available at Berkeley Adult School since Monday and was extended to the rest of the week for any BUSD staff member or student, according to McDermott.

Of the 125 tests administered Monday, there was a 22% positive case rate, as 27 positive cases were recorded, according to McDermott. She added that Tuesday, 14.5% of the tests administered were positive cases, as 20 of the 138 tests were positive tests.

Due to high teacher and staff absences, combined with a limited substitute pool, BUSD teachers have also been met with instances where they are unable to find substitute teachers and have had to deploy certified personnel who work in different departments to teach classes. In some cases, the district has even had to combine classes together.

“We’re very committed to keeping our schools open,” McDermott said. “We continue to appreciate the support of the community in this process; that includes testing, that includes staying home even with one symptom of COVID and the ongoing compliance of our masking protocol. All of these things do matter, and we just have to keep working together to stop the spread.”

Contact Rina Rossi at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @RinaRossi8.