SBCEO Superintendent Susan Salcido and team prepare test kits for distribution. | Credit: Courtesy SBCEO

The Santa Barbara Unified Board of Education held its first meeting of the year Tuesday over Zoom as COVID-19 cases continue to rise throughout the county with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

It was announced that 13,000 students and all district staff members are expected to be tested by Thursday, following a huge spike in positive cases within the district. Students began returning to their classrooms on January 3, and by January 6, more than 150 students and staff members tested positive for COVID-19.  The first week back of school, between January 3 and 7, there were at least 2,000 students and 250 staff members absent each day.

On Monday, January 10, more than 4,000 students and staff members were tested for COVID-19, with 260 testing positive. “We are at a point now in our community where the number of cases is overwhelming our system’s capacity to respond,” said Susan Klein-Rothschild, former deputy director of the county Public Health Department. 

Klein-Rothschild explained that the Omicron variant is currently the most prevalent variant in California and much more transmissible with a shorter incubation time, meaning someone in close contact with another person infected by this variant could become infected themselves within one to three days. There has also been a rise in fully vaccinated and boosted people being infected, though Klein-Rothschild said their symptoms are less severe than unvaccinated individuals who are infected. 

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Any student who wants to opt out of the screening must produce a recent negative COVID-19 test. The district will continue to enforce mandatory mask wearing indoors and outdoors, and all extracurricular and sports contests are suspended until further notice. 

A major concern with this spike and the decision to screen the entire district was test availability, with a national rise in cases making tests extremely limited across the country. However, on January 10, the County Education Office received 56,700 at-home test kits from the state to distribute to all K-12 public schools in the county. 

The testing kits are intended specifically for K-12 public school students, as part of a program announced by Governor Newsom in December 2021 to meet the demand as cases spike and to ensure students could continue in-person learning safely. The tests are antigen rapid tests and include two tests per pack, administered via nasal swab with results occurring within 15 minutes.

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