MVLA: Answers to all the COVID back-to-school questions you might have

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Haz click aqui para ver el articulo en Español.

In just over a week, students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District will make a full return to campus for the first time in 16 months. It’ll be a full return: but not necessarily business as usual.

Here are the answers to some pretty specific COVID-19 protocol questions you might have, which will hopefully alleviate some of your back-to-school stress — whether because you’ll have a better sense of what school will look like, or just because it’ll give you something confusing to distract yourself with.

Or, if this kind of stuff just makes you more anxious, do yourself a favor and click out of the tab now.


Note: All the answers to these questions are based on guidance that stands as of July 30. COVID-19 guidance, as always, is constantly evolving.

Q: To get it out of the way — do I have to wear a mask?

A: Yes, until at least early November. You won’t have to socially distance, though, and you can take your mask off outside. Other than the indoor masking, school should look pretty normal for now.

Q: I tend to get sick a lot, especially during the flu season. Do I have to stay home even if it’s just a sniffle?

A: Unfortunately, yes. If you’re showing any symptoms of COVID-19, many of which are the same as typical cold and flu symptoms, you have to stay home.

Associate Superintendent Leyla Benson, who serves as the district’s COVID-19 designee, said that district leadership recognizes that there may be more absences as a result of that.

“We want to be on the more cautious … side,” Benson said. “[But] if it becomes that enough people are having a problem obtaining access to school, then we may have to reevaluate.”

Q: Wait, but I’m vaccinated. Do I still have to stay home if I’m sick?

A: Yes. It’s a necessary precaution, especially with the spread of the delta variant, which — although the prevalence of this is debated — has been found to break through some fully vaccinated people. Still, though, vaccines are proven to be highly effective at preventing serious illness and stopping infection in the first place.

Q: When can I come back to school after taking sick days?

A: Well, it kind of depends. If you test positive for COVID-19, then you have to wait out a 10-day quarantine, after which you can return to school. If you test negative, then you can probably return to school — but see the next question.

It sounds like there may be cases where, for example, you have a minor sniffle for a day and your doctor clears you to return to school, so you won’t need to test. But by and large, expect to have to take a COVID test if you have any symptoms.

Your school should contact you if you take a sick day and help you through the process. And of course, you can always reach Benson at leyla.benson@mvla.net if you have individual questions (she responds to her emails, like, really fast).

Q: What if I have cold and flu symptoms, but a negative COVID-19 test?

A: This is where it gets a little tricky. (Benson let out a big sigh when asked this question.) It all depends on the day you tested, whether you came in contact with somebody known to have been COVID-positive at the time, if your test was an antigen or PCR test and what your doctor says.

“Like, did you just get randomly sick, and then you went and got your test, it’s an absolute PCR test, and you’re fully ruled out from COVID? Then the answer is yes, last year you could return,” Benson said. “If you were actually exposed, you have these symptoms and you tested on day four when you’re really supposed to test on day five, then I want you to go back … and take the test again.”

So basically it depends, and the district will take each situation case by case in consultation with the county health department. But the bottom line is, you’re probably going to be getting some nasty looks from your classmates if you’re hacking and wheezing through seventh period chem.

Q: Wait, hang on. If I test positive for COVID, do I have to show a negative test before returning?

A: As of now, no. You just have to wait out the 10-day quarantine. At the end of those 10 days, the viral load that you shed is supposed to be low enough that, especially when combined with a mask, you can’t infect other people. Benson seemed to think that the quarantine length could be subject to change because the delta variant is more virulent, although she said she hasn’t heard any official word on that yet.

Q: Will the district offer COVID tests?

A: The district will continue to partner with El Camino Hospital to offer testing for students (Benson said they’ve gotten “really fast” at getting the results back to you), and will also look into other options as needed.

If testing is needed more prevalently, the district will host on-site testing clinics in partnership with El Camino.

The Cue COVID-19 test, a Food and Drug Administration–approved at-home and over-the-counter test is also an option Benson said the district might look into using in some capacity, although that would bring its own set of challenges; the only thing that’s certain as of now is the partnership with El Camino Hospital. 

Q: What happens if I come into close contact with somebody who has COVID-19?

A: If you’re fully vaccinated and you’ve come into close contact with somebody infected with COVID-19, you won’t have to quarantine — you just have to show proof of vaccination to the district. But if you’re not vaccinated, or decline to state your vaccination status, you’ll have to wait out a 10-day quarantine.

Benson said that there may be some limited cases where an unvaccinated student in quarantine because of a close contact could exit early if they produce a negative test, although that would depend on a number of factors, including the day of the test, whether symptoms are present and what the county decides; it would be case by case.

Q: Will it be easier for me to make up the work I miss on sick days?

A: It should be a little easier, mostly on merit of teachers being understanding given the circumstances. Benson said that district leadership discussed this, and at least for now, is asking that teachers send whatever work can be done virtually to students who are sick at home — essentially what staying home sick looks like under normal circumstances.

And of course, there are built-in extensions that teachers are required to give you if you take sick days, as in any normal year.

Benson acknowledged that district leadership has discussed the fact that having to make up work is a big disincentive to staying home sick. 

“What we have seen thus far is that people are very responsible in our community,” Benson said. “This is the current plan, [but] it was very much a plan based on COVID vastly improving and vaccination rates being very high. I have to say, in the past few weeks there have been a lot of new twists.”

So as with everything else, the current policy about making up work from sick days could very possibly change once the school year starts. But seriously, when it comes down to it, it’s going to be up to you to do the right thing and stay home when you’re sick. 

Q: Is there a remote learning option this year?

A: Yes, in the form of Option B, the district’s third-party remote independent study program. While it’ll most likely depend on the specific circumstance, Benson said that students should be able to switch to Option B more seamlessly than last year.

Q: What percentage of teachers and students are vaccinated?

A: Benson said that in a survey of teachers that’s still being completed, 96.6% said they’re fully vaccinated, 2.6% declined to report their status, 0.5% said they weren’t vaccinated and 0.3% said they were midway through the vaccination process. The teacher survey will be finalized closer to the start of school, and students will be surveyed upon return.

You don’t have to give your vaccination status, but if you decline to state it, the school has to treat you as an unvaccinated person.

Q: Anything else I should know?

A: Just know that all of this could conceivably change very quickly — even having full in-person instruction for the rest of the year isn’t necessarily a guarantee.

Regardless, Benson stressed that vaccines continue to be the best way to ensure that school can operate as smoothly as possible.

“We really do believe as a school district that vaccination for anyone who can medically do it … is our first line of defense,” she said.

And, know that even if guidance does change or the pandemic swings in an unexpected direction, the district is far better prepared than it was at the start of last year to deal with these issues.

“We are very excited at the prospects of a return,” Benson said. “We have always put the safety of everyone 100% first. So if these signs show that [our setup is] not going to be safe for everyone, we have now a lot of tried and true options.”

Any questions I missed? Email me at tomoki@gmail.com.

Sunday, Aug. 1: This article has been edited to include new and updated information.

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