West Contra Costa Unified School District teachers will soon be required to wear KN-95 face masks while working to prevent the spread of COVID-19, district officials said this week.
The KN-95 requirement for the district’s some 3,000 classified and certified teachers and other educational staff members will take effect Monday, with the district providing one mask per week to teachers for the rest of the school year.
While masks have been required for teachers and school staff throughout the pandemic, some cloth masks and other non-medical face coverings are unlikely to offer the same protection against spreading or contracting the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus as medical-grade N-95 and KN-95 masks.
“Experts agree that these masks offer extra protection against the COVID-19 virus,” district Superintendent Kenneth Chris Hurst said in a statement. “The safety of our students and staff is our top priority, and we believe this is another important preventive measure we must take at this time.”
In the meantime, the district’s educators have been stretched thin by a raft of COVID-19 cases and exposures as students returned to school this week, according to Marissa Glidden, the president of the United Teachers of Richmond, the district’s teachers’ union.
More than 500 teachers and educational staff were out on COVID leave Wednesday due to either a positive test or exposure to the virus, Glidden said.
In addition, a dearth of available substitute teachers has forced many district officials into the classroom. However, a “significant number” of district officials are also out sick, further exacerbating the issue, Glidden said.
“We do appreciate that they’re doing that,” Glidden said. “They’re really going for it, they’re trying. It’s just an impossible problem, I don’t know what we do.”
A spokesperson for the district did not respond to a request for comment on district officials filling in for absent educators.
The district also distributed 15,000 COVID-19 testing kits to students on Sunday in an effort to help them test for the virus prior to returning to campus on Monday.
As a result, some 6,400 of the district’s 28,000 students were absent on Tuesday. According to Glidden, the district’s attendance rate is normally around 98 percent.
“The spike in cases because of the omicron variant requires us to take further action to protect our staff members and school communities.” Hurst said.
Glidden added that, since the state allocates educational funding based on student attendance, the district is not receiving funding for students who are absent due to COVID exposure or a positive test, even though they are required to stay home.
The district said it expects to receive the KN-95 masks by the end of this week, with the intent of distributing them to campuses before Monday.