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LAUSD will have a new admission requirement when it reopens: A negative COVID-19 test

A sample of a school "report card" for coronavirus cases that L.A. Unified hopes to use
A sample of a school “report card” for coronavirus cases that L.A. Unified hopes to use as part of its testing program.
(Los Angeles Unified)

When schools finally reopen, Los Angeles public school students and their parents will face one new admissions requirement: a negative coronavirus test.

All 80 school districts in Los Angeles County are closed to the general student population until at least November. But when the time comes, a coronavirus test will be a crucial part of the reopening process in the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified. Families that do not agree can stick with online-only instruction.

“We are going out and we’re testing all of our employees and all of our students,” said school board President Richard Vladovic, speaking Monday at the testing site set up at Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington. “That’s essential as we prepare to return to schools.”

Vladovic said the district’s ambitious testing plan gives him hope that campuses could reopen soon in some form. Long Beach Unified, the county’s second-largest district, announced last week that the general student population would not return to campuses until January.

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Besides mandatory testing, L.A. Unified is incorporating an unusual degree of transparency — setting up a website that will provide detailed information about coronavirus outbreaks at an individual campus and even each classroom.

LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner announces a testing and contact tracing program.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner said in an interview Monday that the groundbreaking initiative has to not only help make schools safe, but make them feel safe, which is why parents — and the public — will be able to look up a school and learn the number of positive cases to date and the number of active cases broken down by grade and by the small “cohorts” of students who will spend the day together once a campus is able to reopen.

Students or staff would not be identified. But parents could learn, for example, about a new case among the 12 first-graders in a particular cohort. In that example, the public web page would note: “All families of students in Cohort 1A are notified to stay home and students in 1A will participate in online learning until health guidelines allow their return.”

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“If the rest of the school doesn’t know where the occurrence was, you’re not creating an environment where people feel it’s safe to come back,” Beutner said.

The online information also would allow parents to learn about what’s going on at L.A. Unified schools around them, such as how many schools nearby are open or closed and test results in the school community by age. The age range starts at newborn to 5 and goes up to 71-plus, because the goal is to include information about infections among all family members. Families would not be identified.

The district’s massive undertaking will involve nearly 500,000 K-12 students, 75,000 staff members and thousands of preschool and adult school students. The district‘s partners include UCLA, Stanford, Johns Hopkins University, Microsoft, Anthem Blue Cross and HealthNet, among others — with a price tag of roughly $300 per student over a year, about $150 million.

The district has received hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus-related aid but released few details of how the testing would be paid for.

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San Diego County has gotten the green light to reopen schools, and Orange County officials believe they’ll soon be allowed to follow. But the picture on a school district level is far more complicated.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, in a call Thursday with county school officials, expressed skepticism about the benefits of widespread school-based testing — unless it were done every other day with a fast turnaround for results. Better, she said, to focus on preventive measures and targeted testing and contact tracing. The district plan includes those elements.

As of Monday, schools in Los Angeles County are permitted to open to serve small groups of students with special needs, such as students with disabilities and students learning English. But the process for bringing students back involves extensive safety measures and negotiations with employee groups, notably the teachers union. And most public schools in the county, including L.A. Unified, do not appear ready to immediately bring back any groups of students for instruction.

As part of the L.A. Unified testing ramp up, more than 5,000 staff members and their children were tested late last week. Seven tests came back positive, six adults and one child, Beutner said Monday. The first group to be tested includes employees working at schools and some of their children. The first students are likely to be those referred by teachers for one-on-one, in-person tutoring, which will take place outside, but on campus.

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Beutner added that, over the next several weeks, all staff and students will be provided with an initial, baseline test. After this, “there will be periodic testing based on advice from epidemiologists.”

The district also will provide testing for household members of students or staff who test positive or who show symptoms. In this way, the L.A. Unified initiative will feed into the larger county health program. Beutner said that the district hopes to build up to 5,000 tests per day this week, with the goal of soon reaching as many as 20,000 per day.


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