Staffing shortages threaten school closure

Jonathan Chen and Benjamin Grimes

Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson sits during an interview with The Paly Voice on Wednesday discussing the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. With many teachers out with COVID-19 at Palo Alto High School, the administration is considering how to proceed with in-person school. “The issue is that there is a really large amount of people out,” Berkson said. “Are we at the peak right now? Are we going to be at the peak next week? These are the big questions.” (Photo: Jonathan Chen)

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story incorrectly listed Palo Alto High School COVID-19 data as only coming from the Covid Clinic. This has since been updated.

With the rampant spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, Palo Alto High School administrators are expressing concerns about a potential school closure due to staffing shortages.

According to an update Friday from Superintendent Don Austin, Palo Alto High School experienced 48 positive COVID-19 cases across students and staff from Dec. 8 to Jan. 5.

More cases are likely to come this week. According to the Santa Clara County Public Health department, the seven-day-average of new cases jumped to 2,123 — a stark contrast to December when rates rarely reached 200.

Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said on Wednesday his primary concern for the school is maintaining enough staff amid the COVID-19 surge. 

“There’s a number of staff out, probably about 15 people, which is doable,” Berkson said. “We managed today, and the district office prepared by setting up some employees with even more substitutes [teachers]. Numbers-wise today we made it through — if it’s going to become a bigger deal is the question, and if we can we continue to function.”

According to Berkson, the district is monitoring the staffing situation carefully. 

“There’s no scientific number [of teachers who have to be out],” Berkson said. “We’re just going to play it by ear.”

According to College and Career Center Counselor Karla Larson, masking is more important than ever with this sudden surge in cases. 

“With this holiday season, people had their masks off because we were with family,” Larson said. “We were thinking that everything would be fine. But I think that’s why Omicron went so rampant, because we all took our masks off. So I think masking up is important.”

Although the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly right now, Larson said she thinks Palo Alto High School can stay in-person if people follow safety protocols.

“It feels like we’re never going to take the masks off, [but] I hope we will,” Larson said. “If we all stay masked up and keep with the guidelines of distancing and staying home if you even have a sniffle, I think we can remain in-person.”