In Los Angeles, the price of admission to school is negative COVID test – weekly
LOS ANGELES – As hundreds of thousands of children return to class in the nation’s second largest school district, they participate in what amounts to a vast public health experience that unfolds in real time: every student, teacher and Los Angeles public schools administrator must get tested for the coronavirus every week – indefinitely.
Even people who are fully vaccinated should get tested. People who test positive stay home for at least 10 days. And those who refuse to be tested cannot come at all.
With several other protocols implemented by the Unified School District of Los Angeles – including masking for all and mandatory vaccines for teachers and staff – this is by far the most aggressive coronavirus campaign undertaken or announced by a large school district in the United States. And it comes as classrooms nationwide struggle to return to in-person learning amid the wave of delta variants, with some governors trying to block mask warrants even as epidemics have closed schools. or delayed planned reopenings in Florida, Texas, Iowa and elsewhere.
In Los Angeles, by contrast, the vast majority of parents, teachers and students adopt or at least tolerate the strict measures adopted by the district, with less than 3% of the 450,000 K-12 students in the district opting instead. for distance learning. And while it remains to be seen whether LA’s ambitious approach will succeed in keeping the district’s roughly 1,000 schools open throughout the school year, local leaders and public health experts say the district is raising the bar. ‘a way that is closely watched. and could influence educators nationally.
“I think we are setting the standard for the safe reopening of schools in 2021,” said Smita Malhotra, district medical director. “What our district has done is really quite amazing.
To carry out the daunting task of administering some 500,000 coronavirus tests per week in the sprawling district, LA Unified has contracted with two medical companies that supply about 1,000 licensed health care practitioners. These health workers move from school to school with mobile units performing and supervising nasal swab tests – the PCR tests that produce the most accurate results. The tests are sent twice a day to a lab in northern California that aims to get the results in 24 to 36 hours. The price to pay is high for the chronically underfunded district: around $ 350 million. LA County pays about $ 80 million of that, and the district is trying to get the federal government to cover the rest.
School began Aug. 16 for LA Unified students, and by the end of week two, the district was reporting nearly 3,000 active positive cases among students and others. The number was growing day by day, but only seven cases had been linked in a school setting, all in a Hollywood elementary school which, like the rest of the schools in the district, remained open. Anyone who tested positive has been sent home to quarantine, and close contacts have been identified and also required to self-quarantine unless vaccinated and asymptomatic. Some students and parents have reported long queues or other logistical issues preventing everyone from getting tested each week as scheduled, which the district said individual schools should resolve. Experts say it will become clear in a few months whether the program is working as intended – and if so, other districts should take note.
“If you can do it with half a million children, teachers, and district staff once a week, that just takes away the excuse from others that ‘it’s too big, too complex, we can’t do it, ”said Andrew Sweet, chief executive of the Rockefeller Foundation’s COVID-19 response initiative. “It’s almost like a Marshall Plan for education for a specific district.”
LA Unified’s approach largely aligns with what a number of public health experts have been recommending for months, but goes well beyond what other large districts are predicting. New York City requires vaccinations for school staff, and New York City and Chicago will be testing some part of the student body, but not every week for everyone. Baltimore has announced weekly testing for high school students, but vaccinated students are exempt and students in lower grades are tested using a clustered model in which results are produced for a class or group of students. , not individually.
In the immediate DC area, some districts and charter schools plan to test students and staff weekly, including using the cluster test model.
A much smaller district in Southern California – Culver City – went further than LA Unified, announcing a vaccination mandate for all eligible students.
California State Superintendent of Education Tony Thurmond has said he would like all districts to follow Culver City’s lead, which LA Unified is not yet considering, according to Malhotra. But Thurmond praised the many steps LA Unified has taken to tackle the virus.
“I see our largest district in the state, the second in the country, taking the kind of precautions that make sense for the highest safety results you can expect for everyone,” Thurmond said.
On the other end of the spectrum is the fighting in Florida and Texas, both led by Republican governors trying to ban school districts from issuing mask warrants. In both states, governors have lost legal battles over the issue even as coronavirus outbreaks and school closings occur everywhere.
For some in California, which has been broadly aggressive in its response to the coronavirus, the epidemics currently occurring in schools in other states prove that LA Unified is on the right track.
“The effort we can put in and the money we spend are worth it if we can keep our students in school in a safe environment,” said Robert J. Kim-Farley, professor at the Fielding School of Public UCLA Health.
Kim-Farley and others have warned that regardless, it is almost certain that there will be multiple outbreaks in LA Unified, given the size of the district and the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. The hope is that the measures taken by the district will help contain any epidemic and limit the number of children forced into quarantine.
For some Los Angeles students and parents, the weekly testing term is a welcome relief, providing a level of comfort and confidence that schools will remain open after a year and a half when kids were mostly stuck at home browsing. in distance learning. LA Unified’s school body is predominantly Latin, with many students from low-income families. Parents need their children to go to school in order to be able to work. The kids themselves are happy to be back to school with their friends, and some say it’s only a minor inconvenience to be taken out of class to take a rapid coronavirus test.
The weekly tests were not without controversy and questions from parents, some of whom complained about the lack of transparency from district officials. The district publicly reports positive tests, but initially only did so for individual schools, without aggregating the numbers. A local school advocacy group called Parents Supporting Teachers took it upon themselves to create an Excel spreadsheet showing the numbers, while criticizing the district for not doing it itself.
One of the leaders of Parents Supporting Teachers, Jenna Schwartz, also questioned the district’s changing quarantine protocols and called for an immunization mandate for all eligible students.
“I think LAUSD has some of the best security measures in place of any district in the country, really,” said Schwartz, who has two middle school students. “However, that doesn’t mean it’s enough… when it’s your own children, you can see what still has to happen.”
One of Schwartz’s own children, a sixth grader named Oliver who attends Walter Reed High School, was ordered to quarantine himself towards the end of the second week of school after being nearby of a student who had tested positive. Oliver and the rest of Schwartz’s family eventually tested negative, and Oliver said he was happy with the way his school handled the situation.
“I feel like my school did a really good job controlling it and I think the overall process was good,” Oliver said. He said he had to wait 45 minutes in a hot quarantine tent after being called out of class, but praised school staff for bringing him ice water.
Elise Furlan, a scientist with kids in elementary and middle schools in LA Unified, wondered if weekly testing would disrupt learning and be like overdoing it, because it’s impossible to eliminate all risks or catch all. infections immediately.
Still, “I think for kids it’s so important to be with other kids, so if they have to wear masks, if they have to do tests every week, that’s fine with them,” said Furlan.
Furlan’s fourth-grade daughter Julianne said the tests gave her a sense of security, although “it’s a little boring because you have to do it every week.” She also said the tests were taking “a long time”, defining it as “about 15 minutes”.
“I have to say I’m so happy to be a part of the school district right now,” said Andrea Richards, whose daughter is in fourth grade at a public school in the Silver Lake neighborhood. “I can send my child to school every morning and feel good. “