About 400 Samohi students isolating due to COVID-19 positivity; at least 57 virus cases detected at Malibu Middle and High schools; elementary schools averaging one out of every three students being kept home either due to illness or the fear of illness: that’s the reality for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) in January 2022.

The highly-transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19, shortages of testing availability and changing county health guidelines have all contributed to a stressful new year for parents, teachers, students and administrators in the local school district.

On Monday, SMMUSD Spokesperson Gail Pinsker reported school sites were seeing about 10-12 percent positive cases at schools, with Samohi higher. Local schools have also had to deal with staff shortages and issues as the virus affected teachers, administrators and support staff as well as students. However, a lack of centralized information makes tracking all of these issues virtually impossible.

In mid-December, the district embarked on a plan to overhaul its COVID-19 data dashboard, a project that, a month later, was still underway, meaning no centralized public data is available for cases at local schools.

Work on the system was delayed over the winter break and officials said fluctuating rules are impacting the final product.

“We are revamping and this takes time. It was originally designed before vaccinations were available and information for quarantine and isolation is different now if someone is vaxxed and asymptomatic,” said Pinsker. “We are looking at what other districts are doing and working with our team to determine input and maintenance of the new dashboard.”

As the new omicron COVID-19 variant has sent cases skyrocketing across LA County, testing and reporting has struggled to keep up with the radically increased demand.

In the interim, data was coming in piecemeal from various school sites.

According to a Friday, Jan. 7, update from Lincoln Middle School, 57 Lincoln students tested positive for the virus the first week of school. The school district confirmed about 400 positive cases had been reported at Samohi in the first week back to school.

At Will Rogers Learning Community, Principal Ryan Bourke wrote to assure parents that “we are working behind the scenes to ensure the safety of our students and staff,” in his weekly email dated Sunday, Jan. 9.

“Due to the sheer volume of PRC [PCR] tests, laboratories are backlogged,” Bourke’s letter continued. “This is causing a delay in returning results. As of Sunday evening, about 95% of our school’s tests have been returned; anyone who tests positive will be contacted by the laboratory. If you have not received your ‘negative result’ email, it is because of the delay. It is reassuring to know that our school’s COVID-positive numbers are extremely low.”

Will Rogers was not the only SMMUSD school site dealing with delays in test results.

“Last week, due to overwhelming volume, test results were delayed in being emailed to families,” Malibu Elementary Principal Christopher Hertz wrote in his weekly email to parents dated Jan. 10. The email was initially reported on by KBUU News. “As of 9AM today MES still does not have our batch results. This is worrisome for me. Health staff and I prioritize communication to the parent(s) of any child who tested positive. I am assured by Malibu Medical that this week they will return to emailing results by Wednesday evening, as they had done weeks prior.”

Pinsker reported school sites across the district saw anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent of students staying home on the first day of school. Additional data requests have been hampered by a lack of SMMUSD staff who are also testing positive.

Data showed the school sites with the highest rates of students being kept home included Will Rogers Elementary, Malibu Elementary, CDS Preschool and Olympic High School, which each saw more than 40 percent of the total student body miss the first day of class. About one-quarter to one-third of students were not in classrooms at Edison, Grant, John Muir, McKinley, Franklin, Roosevelt, Webster, SMASH, Lincoln, JAMS, Malibu Middle, Samohi and Malibu High.

Across the district, which has a total student body of about 13,000, about 2,800 students were absent for the first day of classes, including 881 students “absent at least one period” from Samohi. The district was offering excused absences due to the COVID-19 surge through this Friday, Jan. 14, Pinsker wrote.

“Students home are not enjoying an extended winter break,” Pinsker wrote. “It’s on a school by school basis on how they are handling specifically as it involves whether a teacher is out and a sub is or is not available, or if a portion of a class is on quarantine, or other factors. The interest of the District is that students are engaged in meaningful work while at home as we navigate this challenging time where we may see students and staff in and out in the next few weeks.”

Multiple sources also cited shifting protocols as an additional burden going into 2022.

In a letter to parents on Jan. 4 — which was revised one day later — Superintendent Ben Drati wrote that “new guidance provides for students and staff who are required to isolate because of a positive test result to be released from isolation and return to school on the sixth day following the initial positive test result, provided that they have a negative antigen rapid test done on the fifth day and are not symptomatic.

“This is a change from the previous 10-day requirement, however, at this time we are continuing with the 10-day schedule,” Drati continued.

He said the district was working on the process for recording and approving return to school on the sixth day as this was a significant shift in their protocol and it would take some time to develop this system.

According to Pinsker, that would be in place by Jan. 18.

“Starting 1/18, secondary schools will move to the five-day isolation / quarantine, with a negative test,” Pinsker wrote. “Or, still 10-day with no test, as long as [there are] no symptoms.”