Kids are increasingly staying home from school in some Orange County neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic, with one school district seeing absences nearly six times higher than usual for elementary students.

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It also comes as a holiday COVID-19 surge has residents in a desperate and often fruitless or costly scramble to find tests so they can return to work or warn exposed loved ones.

“I honestly can’t believe that we’re two years into this and many of us still have trouble receiving easy access to tests.”

Daniel Parker, an infectious disease epidemiologist and demographer at the University of California, Irvine, to Voice of OC on Wednesday

Public health experts like Parker have repeatedly said accessible testing is a cornerstone of the pandemic response.

In Santa Ana Unified School District elementary schools, the absentee rate soared as high as 17% this week, whereas normal levels usually hover at 3%, said district spokesperson Fermin Leal in a text message Wednesday.

Around that same time, the district high schools’ absentee rate was at 7%, when it’s typically at 4%, said Leal. 

And 320 out of the roughly 3,000 teachers at district were out sick or currently quarantining, according to Leal.

“There might be some families who just feel that their kids are safer at home and there’s obviously a lot of other families whose kids have symptoms … or other illnesses,” he said in a phone call Thursday.

Many parents are anxious about sending their children back to schools as they return from the winter break as virus cases and hospitalizations are surging.

Other parents and some teachers have been rallying and speaking out against classroom mask mandates as well as an expected vaccine mandate.

Some districts have called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state to rethink the vaccine mandate.

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Meanwhile, basic efforts to get tested have become a hopeless chore for some, as testing appointments at local pharmacies are often booked out, while the county struggles to get testing kits out.

In interviews and on social media, residents say such a task means either waiting hours in line outside a local clinic – only to be told rapid tests aren’t generally covered by insurance so costs could go as high as $100 – or awaiting the shipping of at-home tests which have either been delayed or are no longer available for the time being. 

The situation became so stark that by Wednesday, county Supervisor Katrina Foley held an abrupt news conference with the OC deputy public health officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, who said there are enough tests to go around in the county but not enough hands to distribute.

The conference ended with Chinsio-Kwong declaring “all bets are off” in terms of knowing how long the current case surge will last amidst this crisis. 

“There’s a potential, we’re going to hit at least the amount of hospitalizations and ICU admissions that we experienced with the most recent surge,” said Chinsio-Kwong at Wednesday’s news conference.

“When you look at Europe, there’s still surging with high numbers, and we’re more likely going to be following what Europe is experiencing.”

For one Cal State Fullerton graduate student, Diana Blanco, the lack of testing forced her to spend her birthday scouring the internet for an affordable testing option on Tuesday. 

“I was really frustrated because obviously if you have the money you can just (spend out of pocket and) get it done, but for me, being a grad student, I have to save up for next semester,” Blanco said.

She eventually got tested for free at a Santa Ana Unified School District site on Wednesday, she said, and that she didn’t have to wait with a crowd only because she showed up when it opened early in the morning.

“Part of the problem is that much of our testing is approached from an individualized medical process rather than a public health, population process,” said Parker, of UCI. “Many folks must go through a complicated medical system to first receive authorization from a medical doctor for receiving a test, followed by going through another complicated process in order to have insurance cover the costs of the tests.” 

It’s a major barrier “that will lead to many people not being tested. Some of the other problems are related to supply/demand issues and the economy,” Parker added.

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Last month, the state’s department of health promised to provide 1-2 tests for every public school student in California through their districts, with about 460,000 expected for OC students.

There’s no testing requirement for students to return to classrooms, although state health officials are encouraging kids to take a test before going back to school.

[Read: With Students Back in Class after the Holidays, Covid Concerns Again Take Front Seat Across OC]

Yet less than half the test kits from the state arrived Wednesday, after many kids already returned to school. 

More than 191,000 – or 42% – of the expected tests arrived to the county on Wednesday morning, according to the Orange County Department of Education.

County officials say they don’t know when the rest of the tests will arrive but are still expecting them.

“In general, with shipments of test kits … everything has been delayed and I don’t have an answer of when we’re going to get more or how much more.”

OC deputy public health officer, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said at Wednesday’s news conference

She said it “would be nice” if students could test weekly, but there is a national shortage of antigen tests.

Leal, the Santa Ana Unified School District spokesperson, told Voice of OC on Wednesday that about 1% of the students tested so far this week came back positive; 10,000 were tested by the end of the day on Tuesday. 

“We are encouraged that our COVID testing rates at schools are very low,” he said. “That reassures us that our schools are generally for the most part safe.”

Leal added that the district is following all necessary precautions.

The district – which serves an area of central county hit hardest by the pandemic – hosts a test clinic at every school once a week and is also hosting vaccine clinics.

Parents Weigh in on a Return to Campus

With schools starting up again, some parents told Voice of OC they are anxious about their children returning to classrooms as positivity rates steadily increase. 

A few didn’t want their names published fearing their child might be retaliated against.

Some are also frustrated with the way their districts are handling Coronavirus precautions and their communication with parents. 

“It’s just very nerve-racking,” one of the parents said. “My kids go to Capistrano Unified and we haven’t gotten any sort of acknowledgment from the school district that this variant perhaps presents a bit more of a challenge than delta or any of the previous ones, they seem to still be sticking to the old script of how to handle COVID.”

“And I feel like they’re not really prepared.”

Some have also kept their kids at home, out of the uncertainty, according to parents who spoke to Voice of OC.

Others are upset that districts are not requiring a negative COVID test to get back in the classroom while some wish districts would temporarily return online until case rates drop. 

Saddleback Valley parent Jill Schindler said districts should up their precautions in light of the Omicron variant by requiring masks at all times.

“It is difficult enough to enforce the guidelines that they are given – much less trying to go above and beyond and so I feel for the school. But at the same time, I’m worried that my kid is going to catch a highly contagious disease.”

Saddleback Valley parent Jill Schindler

Schindler said she was apprehensive about sending her son back, but had him tested before he returned.

Denise Berg, a teacher in the Centralia School District in North OC, said she is happy with the way her district is approaching in-person instruction amid a pandemic.

“I’m actually extremely pleased with how proactive my district has been,” she said. “When we came back last year, they put in air purifiers, very high-quality air purifiers in every classroom. They are requiring masking of students inside the classroom.”

Berg said the district sent staff home with COVID tests before the break and has done a good job communicating with staff regarding state or district changes because of the virus.

Classes in that district are expected to resume next week.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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