EDITOR'S NOTE: Multimedia journalist Chace Beech spoke with a student and teacher from Olive Vista Middle School and to Mayor Garcetti about the continuation of in-person instruction. Click the arrow above to watch the video.
LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Tens of thousands of Los Angeles Unified School District students headed back to classes Tuesday amid a dramatic countywide surge in COVID-19 cases, but officials continue to insist on the effectiveness of infection-control measures on campus.
The district required all students and staff to be tested for COVID before returning to in-person activities, even distributing thousands of take-home test kits to students since Friday. Students and employees have been getting tested at district and other sites, with the program encountering thousands of infections.
According to the district's website, more than 414,000 tests had been administered as of Sunday, and 62,000 positive cases had been detected, giving the district a positivity rate of about 15%.
Interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly told reporters last week that, while high, the district's positivity rate is still below that of the county as a whole. As of Sunday, the county's overall testing-positivity rate was about 20.6%.
"LA Unified maintains the highest COVID-19 safety standards of any public school district in the nation, including weekly testing of all staff and students, universal masking indoors and outdoors, comprehensive sanitizing efforts, frequent hand-washing, upgraded air filtration systems, physical distancing as much as possible and collaboration with health partners," Reilly said Tuesday morning at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has also spoken highly of efforts being undertaken at schools, repeatedly citing relatively low infection rates despite the large number of students gathered in classrooms in the nation's second-largest school district.
Long lines could be seen at some LAUSD campuses as children returned Tuesday, with staffers verifying their negative tests before allowing them to enter. Reilly said surging COVID cases have not yet caused a critical shortage of teachers, but it has caused some impacts to bus drivers, potentially leading to some delays.
LAUSD officials mandated COVID testing ahead of spring classes to identify students and staff who may have picked up infections over the winter break — possibly through family holiday gatherings.
To assist in the testing effort, the district on Friday began distributing take-home tests to students at dozens of its Grab & Go food distribution sites. The take-home tests were among roughly 6 million obtained by the state and distributed to education offices and districts across California in hopes of testing all students before they return to classes.
Students and employees can still get tested at district sites, with appointments available online at lausd.net/covidtestingappt or by calling 213-443-1300. Walk-in testing is also available at district sites.
Students and employees can also get tested at non-district sites, but they must upload results onto the district's Daily Pass system.
Students and employees at LAUSD campuses and all other schools in the county are also subject to stricter COVID safety protocols, which were announced on New Year's Eve by the county Department of Public Health.
The rules require all students and staff to wear masks outdoors "where physical distancing is not feasible," and employees must wear upgraded surgical or higher-level masks instead of cloth ones.
The new rules recommend, but do not require, students to wear non- cloth masks "with a nose wire." The requirement for upgraded masks — which must be provided to staff by districts — will take effect two weeks after schools reopen.
The revised protocols from the county also include a "strong recommendation for all eligible staff and students to receive a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in addition to their primary vaccine series."
COVID testing is also required "for all close contacts who are permitted to remain in school immediately after exposure, regardless of vaccination or booster status."
"The schools are the safest place you can have your children right now," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at the Sylmar middle school. "Safest for their mental well-being, safest for their physical well-being, where they can get tested, boosted, vaccinated. This is a place of safety and a place of recovery."
The district announced Sunday it is postponing all athletic competitions this week due to the case surge. All affected competitions are expected to be rescheduled.
The move came despite the district mandating last year that all students taking part in athletic or extracurricular activities be fully vaccinated.
LAUSD has opted to delay enforcement of its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for all other students until the fall, with officials saying they hoped to improve the roughly 87% vaccination rate before forcing non-compliant students into remote learning.
The district will continue to require baseline and weekly testing of all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, through January. Beginning in February, only unvaccinated students will be required to undergo weekly testing.
Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles union, issued a statement late Monday saying that while "the spring semester in LAUSD begins this week amid the uncertainty and anxiety that has defined this prolonged pandemic," Los Angeles schools are "in a better position than most others in the country because of the safety infrastructure that educators and families fought for and won during this pandemic."
"LA Unified is one of only a handful of school districts in the United States with a regular COVID testing system and a coordinated daily pass system in place," she said.
"The terrain is changing by the day, and educators will continue to prioritize the health and safety of everyone in our education community. This week will be stressful, and there will be disruptions. No one has a playbook for this moment. As we have throughout this crisis, we will get through this together — educators, parents and school staff working alongside each other in support of our students."