Despite the ongoing surge in coronavirus cases this winter, Los Angeles Unified officials intend to proceed as planned with welcoming students back to campus on Tuesday, Jan. 11, following a three-week holiday break.
While the district will continue to assess the situation, officials said Friday that, based on current conditions, they did not believe the district will be forced to cancel any in-person classes at the start of spring semester due to high student or staff infection rates.
“We are, right now, very confident (we can) open 100% of our schools on Jan. 11,” said Anthony Aguilar, chief of special education, equity and access.
According to officials, more than half the district’s employees and over a third of students had been tested for the coronavirus as of Thursday. And, Aguilar said, the latest test-positivity rate for students and staff was 13.5%. Countywide, the seven-day test-positivity rate is about 22.5%.
The district is requiring staff and students to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result before they can return to campus. Those learning or working on campus will also have to continue with weekly testing throughout this month.
Just like during the first day of fall semester when families experienced long lines to get onto campus as students were screened, district leaders said they expect lines to be longer than usual on Tuesday, especially since some students who haven’t had their COVID-19 tests will have to take a rapid antigen test onsite that morning before being admitted to campus.
They’re recommending families allow themselves extra time to get to school, in anticipation of the longer lines, and urged students and parents to be patient.
Drawing up contingency plans
As for lingering concerns about whether any school might close or revert to online instruction due to high COVID-19 infection rates or staffing shortages, Aguilar said he did not believe that would happen, despite that being the case elsewhere in the country.
That said, district officials have or are working on contingency plans in case they’re confronted with worst-case scenarios.
According to officials, the district has about 4,000 employees working at the central office or local district offices who can be deployed to school sites in the event of staffing shortages. Many administrators hold teaching credentials and can teach in the classroom, they noted.
Additionally, if there is a shortage of food service workers and hot meals can’t be prepared, the district has shelf-ready meals available for students. Similarly, district leaders have been working with the transportation department to plan for the consolidation of bus routes should there be a shortage of school bus drivers, district leaders said.
“We are making contingency plans for all scenarios. … The goal is to keep students learning safely in person for as long as we’re able,” said school board President Kelly Gonez, noting that contingency plans were also drawn up in the fall ahead of a deadline for employees to get their COVID-19 shots to deal with potential staffing shortages.
And should there be a need to quickly switch to remote instruction?
“It’s really the option of last resort. We’ve seen the challenge to students,” board Vice President Nick Melvoin said.
Based on the district’s contingency plans, Melvoin said it’s “exceedingly unlikely” the district will have to revert to remote instruction, though he and Gonez noted that after two years of dealing with the pandemic, district staff members have the experience to pivot quickly if necessary.
Updated safety protocols
In November, as local conditions regarding the pandemic appeared to be improving and more students were becoming vaccinated, officials announced plans to relax some health-and-safety protocols, such as requiring only unvaccinated students to continue with weekly coronavirus testing and allowing schools with an 85% or higher student vaccination rate to shed the outdoor masking mandate.
But then came news of the omicron variant, and with it, a surge in coronavirus cases.
In December, the district decided it would continue to administer coronavirus tests to all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, throughout January, since many would have just returned from holiday travels and family gatherings.
Late last month, county public health officials also announced an updated health order that, among other conditions, requires K-12 schools to adhere to an outdoor masking mandate when physical distancing isn’t possible, unless someone is eating or drinking.
Additionally, school employees in L.A. County must wear higher-grade masks, such as surgical or KN95 or N95 masks.
United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement that L.A. Unified schools “are on track to reopen” due in part to mandatory baseline COVID-19 testing.
“Our school district is 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,” she stated, adding that the district is one of just a handful in the country with a regular COVID-19 testing program and Daily Pass system in place to track test results and provide daily health screenings.
“There will be hurdles to the start of spring semester, along with the anxiety and uncertainty inherent in this prolonged pandemic,” Myart-Cruz said. “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.”
The situation between school leaders and the local teachers unions have been more tense in other districts.
The Chicago school district canceled classes for a third day on Friday because district leaders and the teachers union haven’t reached agreement on COVID-19 safety protocols.
On Thursday, some teachers in San Francisco staged a sickout, calling on the Bay Area school district to provide KN95 or N95 masks to employees as well as arrange for weekly coronavirus testing for staff and students.
In terms of masking, L.A. County health officials are only requiring school employees to wear upgraded masks. Asked whether LAUSD should extend that requirement to include students, Gonez said getting disposable surgical masks may be a financial barrier for some families, but the district is making them available at school sites to students who want them.
It might make sense down the road to have a conversation about whether to require non-cloth masks, Gonez said. But, she said, “I think for right now, the encouragement and making sure that we have the supplies if families need them, that’s the priority.”