L.A Unified reports highest-ever student, staff COVID rates

Coronavirus infection rates have shot up to 13.5% among students and staff in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a nearly 10-fold rise since before winter break, as officials said Friday they are moving forward to safely open classrooms for in-person learning on Tuesday.

Through Thursday more than half of the district’s 73,000 employees had submitted test results and about 30% of students, said Interim Supt. Megan Reilly, who visited Cochrane Middle School in Arlington Heights on Friday for the distribution of free test kits provided by the state. On Monday, Reilly required all students and staff to provide test results before returning to campus, and the district’s coronavirus testing sites have been open all week.

“We’re trying to do as much as possible to ensure we maintain the highest safety standards in our schools,” she said. “We keep our schools safer than the general public. As far as I’m concerned, I want everyone back in school.”

In L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, teachers are scheduled to arrive on campus on Monday and students on Tuesday after a three-week winter break.

The rapid rise in infection rates mirrors what is happening in the county — and in much of the nation — due to the Omicron variant, which county health officials estimate to be five times more contagious than older strains.

The new term began this week in 50 of the 80 school systems in L.A. County.

Although keeping campuses in operation has been a challenge throughout the region, a relatively small number of K-12 schools delayed in-person instruction or canceled it for the remainder of the week. Virtually all schools have had to confront high infection rates, staff absences and lower student attendance.

The L.A. Unified figures represent a snapshot of the current surge and are the product of the nation’s most extensive coronavirus testing effort — which in the fall tested all students and staff every week.

The school system had planned to ramp down from that effort — which costs about $5 million a week — before Omicron altered the equation. First, the district extended weekly testing through at least January, then called for baseline testing for the return from winter break.

L.A. Unified has a significant advantage in having the infrastructure and experience of widespread, regular testing.

The district is managing two kinds of tests — PCR tests and rapid antigen tests. The tests given to families to use at home are antigen tests.

The PCR tests are more precise in finding the presence of an infection but must be processed by a lab. A PCR test can show a positive reading before or after a person is contagious. The antigen tests are less accurate and won’t find all active infections but are reasonably effective at determining whether a person is contagious at the time of testing — and the results are ready in minutes, according to county health officials.

With the antigen tests, “you want to get that as close as possible as to the entry date,” said Anthony Aguilar, the district’s chief of special education, equity and access. “So we’re asking parents not to administer any rapid antigens any sooner than January 8 to their students prior to accessing campus on January 11.”

The district also is setting aside antigen tests so they can process students through as quickly as possible if they arrive to campus without clearance, Aguilar said. Parental consent is required for the district to test students, but for the vast majority this consent is on file because of last semester’s regular testing.

While taking part in the test-kit distribution Reilly emphasized that, with the antigen test, it takes just “15 minutes to basically get a result.”

Student and staff will not be allowed on campus without proof of a negative test. She expects that there will be lines of student who have not been tested awaiting access to classroom on Tuesday, but “we don’t want any student not to have access to school,” Reilly said.

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