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Newsletter: Essential California Week in Review: As schools struggle, there’s some upbeat COVID-19 news

A woman walks next to a boy with a notebook and plastic bag in his hands as a worker in protective equipment looks on
A student prepares for a coronavirus test Tuesday at El Sereno Middle School in Los Angeles. The L.A. school district has ordered tests for all students and staff members before they return from winter break next week.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It is Saturday, Jan. 8.

Here’s a look at the top stories of the last week

California schools were fighting to stay open. Campuses are facing severe staffing shortages, high student absences and increased infection rates as the Omicron variant sweeps through. Problems popped up all over the state: The San Gabriel school system shut down a middle school and high school for two days this week. A San Diego high school switched to online learning toward the end of the week. A group of San Francisco teachers was planning a sickout. In L.A. County, 50 of 80 schools systems reopened and appeared to be staying open, but nothing was coming easy. Meanwhile, Cal State Long Beach joined a growing number of California universities and community colleges delaying in-person classes and moving online.

In happier coronavirus news: Despite an unprecedented spike in cases fueled by Omicron, L.A. County hospitals are seeing far fewer critically ill COVID-19 patients than they did last winter. Early data seem to reflect the experience elsewhere — that Omicron, although far more transmissible than the previously dominant Delta variant, also tends to cause less severe symptoms, especially in those who have been vaccinated and boosted.

Arch at Spooner's cove
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The record-breaking storms of December crumbled a landmark. We surely needed the rain. But the rock arch at Spooner’s Cove, along the coast of San Luis Obispo, was a casualty.

Sidney Poitier has died. The actor, who helped break down Hollywood’s onscreen color barriers before becoming one of the top box-office draws of the 1960s in movies such as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” was 94. Poitier, the first Black man to win an Academy Award for lead actor, was a towering role model for succeeding generations of Black actors. Also: The Times’ Greg Braxton tells what it was like to meet a legend.

Smash-and-grabs and follow-home robberies have drawn widespread attention, but the real story is ... : They make up just a fraction of L.A.’s burglaries and robberies, which overall have not seen a significant increase. Still, the incidents are disturbing and have roiled the political discourse. The Times dug deeper into these incidents, profiling the accused and speaking to some of them: Why’d they do it? Some scratch out a living reselling what they steal. Others keep what they swipe for themselves.

Elizabeth Holmes is guilty of fraud for turning her blood-testing startup into a sophisticated sham. The former Theranos chief executive was convicted on four counts of fraud and conspiracy. A jury found she duped billionaires and other unwitting investors into backing a seemingly revolutionary company whose medical technology never worked as she promised.

Should police arrest sex workers for standing around? In September, legislators passed Senate Bill 357, which would repeal loitering laws around prostitution, including those that target pimps and buyers. It is now in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s hands to decide. In recent weeks, sex workers and advocates on both sides have lobbied him over a decision that some contend is a first step in decriminalizing sex work in California — in effect, leaving it illegal but repealing or not enforcing laws meant to stop it.

With the focus on the coronavirus, sexually transmitted infections are soaring in California, but a new law should help. California has become the first state to require health insurance plans to cover at-home tests for STIs such as HIV, chlamydia and syphilis. By making it easier and cheaper for Californians to self-administer tests in the privacy of their homes, the provision could bring better disease monitoring to rural and underserved parts of the state, reduce the stigma patients experience when seeking care and give them more control over their health, say experts on infectious diseases.

The Times looks at the journey of Klete Keller from USC grad and Olympian to Capitol rioter. The man who had represented his country in freestyle swimming stood amid the Jan. 6 mob, wearing his jacket with the Olympic logo and yelling, “F— Nancy Pelosi! ... F— Chuck Schumer!” Hundreds of pages of court records, emails and interviews with more than 30 friends, teammates and associates show that Keller’s journey to the Capitol was the latest and most bewildering choice in a life beset by struggles since retiring from swimming more than a decade ago.

Larry Elder said he would not challenge Gov. Gavin Newsom to a rematch. The conservative talk show host, who topped the field of candidates trying to replace Newsom in September’s failed recall, had previously said, “Stay tuned.” Now he’s saying he’s switching his focus to his new Elder for America PAC, to help Republicans running for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Three investigations have been launched into the shooting of 14-year-old Valentina Orellana Peralta by an L.A. police officer. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Michel Moore pledged the investigations would be transparent and go beyond the conduct of Officer William Dorsey Jones Jr. to also examine LAPD policies, practices and standards for using deadly force.

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ICYMI, here are this week’s great reads

An airline broke an activist’s wheelchair. Her death months later amplified calls for change. The death of Engracia Figueroa, a Los Angeles activist whose customized wheelchair was broken by an airline, has amplified calls to fix a system that disabled activists have called archaic and dangerous.

COVID has made hotel housekeeping harder — and more disgusting. A housekeeper at the Hilton Garden Inn in Hollywood entered a room and was hit with what smelled like dead animals and the sight of blood on the bedsheets — plus maggots and hypodermic needles. Her manager merely told her to clean it up as fast as possible. The pandemic has added stress to most jobs, but the work of hotel housekeepers, already an occupation with high injury rates, has become increasingly difficult, with fewer workers facing short deadlines to clean rooms that are filthier than ever.

As we settle into 2022, here are five stories to watch in California politics: There are a few clear storylines emerging about the year ahead in California politics and government, The Times’ Sacramento bureau chief John Myers writes in his California Politics newsletter: “State and local leaders will surely continue to spend much of their time addressing the impacts of a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as monitoring drought conditions and grappling with the crisis of homelessness. All of it will play out under the shadow of a statewide election, as candidates begin to file paperwork as soon as next week for state and federal races.” Read more, and sign up for the newsletter; it’s free.

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Today’s week-in-review newsletter was curated by Amy Hubbard. Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints and ideas to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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