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LAUSD coronavirus testing reveals 177 infections prior to first campus openings

A kindergarten student gets a coronavirus test via nose swab
A kindergarten student is tested for the coronavirus at Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School on the first day of in-class instruction. Testing has detected 177 infections.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Recent coronavirus testing has revealed 177 infections among staff and students at Los Angeles-area campuses poised to reopen, underscoring the importance of the district’s mandatory internal program, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner said Monday.

But officials provided few contextual details, including where these cases emerged or how many tests were conducted over the period that the infections were found.

Meanwhile, some parents have had difficulty obtaining tests at 43 campus-based sites across the L.A. Unified School District, and other parents continue to object to the testing as a condition for returning to campus. While the district mandates this testing, local health authorities do not.

Most elementary schools are resuming in-person classes this week after 61 reopened last week in the nation’s second-largest school system. By the end of the month, some 1,400 schools are expected to reopen.

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The coronavirus testing program is targeted in a lawsuit, with a group of parents saying it is unfair and illegal to make these tests a precondition for returning for in-person instruction. But Beutner has consistently defended the testing as making campuses safer and also helping parents and employees to feel more confident about coming back to campuses.

Under district rules, students must submit to a test in the week prior to their scheduled return. After that, testing is required every week. Beutner said Monday that testing in advance of returning already has contributed to a safer school environment.

“Over the last two weeks, 72 employees and 105 students tested positive for COVID-19 before their school opened,” Beutner said in his weekly broadcast on Monday. “That’s 177 people with the virus our testing program has kept safely isolated and not in schools.”

It is unclear whether the superintendent meant “coronavirus infections” — which would include people with no symptoms of illness who could nonetheless transmit the virus to others — or people who are actually ill with the disease. Finding asymptomatic individuals — and limiting their ability to pass on the infection to others — is a primary goal of the testing effort.

The district also has not provided information about the number or percentage of students who returned to campus last week.

Based on parent surveys, about 40% of elementary school students are expected to return overall — with the outlook varying tremendously from campus to campus. At Warner Avenue Elementary in Westwood, about 95% of students have chosen to return. In other communities — where most families are low-income and Black or Latino — the numbers appear to fall as low as about 25%. And when some campuses reopened, fewer children showed up than expected.

Generally, parents appear to be keeping their children out of in-person elementary schools over safety concerns. But there could be some issues with testing. Some parents have found it challenging to get to one of the district’s 43 testing sites.

On the Westside late last week, a huge turnout at testing sites apparently overwhelmed staff. Some parents reported hours-long waits at Palms Middle School and Grand View Boulevard Elementary, with some being turned away and told to return the next day. By Saturday, the line at Palms was moving slowly, five or six families deep much of the afternoon. Parents reported wait times of 20 to 30 minutes.

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“There are bound to be a few bumps in the road, but once everyone is used to being part of this comprehensive program, it’ll be worth it,” Beutner said in his broadcast. “It’s all part of our commitment to create the safest possible school environment.”

There also are parents who object to the testing as traumatizing and impractical for their medically fragile children with special needs. Others consider the tests an unnecessary infringement on parental discretion that should not have been included in an agreement with the teachers union.

However, they also note that even the teachers union agreement mandates a much lower testing frequency under the county’s current level of coronavirus risk: 20% or more of students every two weeks.

The district’s testing centers are open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., through April 25.

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Some returning students will have a potential disappointment awaiting them.

Across the district about 1,400 teachers will not be returning to classrooms because of medical exemptions, said Chief Academic Officer Alison Yoshimoto-Towery. The teachers union on Monday said that figure may apply to all union members, not just teachers. United Teachers Los Angeles represents more than 35,000 librarians, counselors and nurses.

For middle and high schools, a teacher working from home will be less of an impediment because secondary students will continue to be doing their work online even from campus — and will not necessarily be working in a classroom monitored by any of their teachers.

However, a teacher’s absence will be noticeable at the elementary level. In that situation, returning students will find a long-term substitute in their classroom to assist while they log on for class with their teacher who is continuing to work from home.

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The district did not immediately provide information about how many elementary teachers would be working this way.

But Yoshimoto-Towery did have an update on another front: The district for this year will drop the state standardized tests, which are normally mandatory in grades 3 through 8. It will continue to give the test to students in grade 11, because results can be an important metric for students to demonstrate that they are ready for college-level work.

Dropping the state tests means that students will not lose at least 4½ hours of instructional time.

A year ago, the state canceled outright its tests for the 2019-20 school year after campuses closed because of the pandemic. This year, it was left for school districts to decide.

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The district will continue to administer its own standardized testing at each grade. The teachers union has lobbied to eliminate all forms of standardized testing for the current year.


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