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L.A. County will continue to enforce strict school quarantine rules amid coronavirus cases

Students walk up steps to school gates
Students arrive at Mendez High School for coronavirus testing by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Strict school quarantines will stay in place on campuses amid a rising number of infections among students and staff.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County health officials will continue to enforce strict school quarantine rules amid a “sobering” 3,186 coronavirus cases at campuses countywide last week, public health officials said Thursday.

The county quarantine rules, which are stricter than state guidelines, have raised concerns among some school leaders and parents about academic disruption after thousands of students and staff members were sent home in the opening days of the school year. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, 6,500 were in quarantine or isolation the first week of class.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that the full extent of the risk posed by the coronavirus’ Delta variant at schools remains unknown and that it would be premature to ease quarantine guidelines.

Experts have said the Delta variant is at least twice as contagious as earlier forms of the coronavirus.

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“We have a lot of risk right now,” Ferrer said in her weekly media briefing. “The early data we do have on schools is somewhat sobering.”

During the first three days of this week, officials identified five school outbreaks in the county involving 27 students and three staff members, with 135 others exposed. Last week, when many schools, including those in L.A. Unified, reopened for the fall semester, three outbreaks were identified, with 25 students and 60 staff members infected and 79 others exposed.

“We anticipate an upward trend in outbreaks as our schools have reopened, but we’re continuing to work hard to prevent, investigate and manage them as they happen,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer also emphasized that many outbreaks had resulted from poor health practices. From July 30 to Aug. 20, there were nine outbreaks among high school cheerleading and dance teams that involved 10 staff members and 131 students.

“All nine of the outbreaks were associated with two- to four-day indoor camps that took place at facilities outside of L.A. County,” Ferrer said.

All the camps had students from multiple schools, and they were asked to adhere to their own mask policies — meaning students from some schools had to wear masks and students from others did not. Masking was also inconsistent on buses, and at eight of the camps, students shared rooms with two to six others.

Ferrer also said that during periods of high transmission, as in L.A. County at the present, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends canceling high-risk sports — including football, soccer, basketball, rugby and indoor volleyball — unless all participants are vaccinated.

The county is not taking this step. Instead, Ferrer said, it is requiring face coverings for participants and spectators at indoor sports events. For higher-risk sports, vaccinated participants should test once a week and unvaccinated participants twice a week. To compete against another team, athletes must submit a negative test within 72 hours of the contest.

One of the outbreaks was reported Wednesday at Grant Elementary in Hollywood, where seven infections were possibly spread at school. Four other infections among those on the campus were not associated with the outbreak. County officials define an outbreak as three or more linked infections over a 14-day period.

Some school district leaders in recent days have pressed the county to align its quarantine policies with less-stringent state guidelines.

The county requires all “close contacts” of an infected person to quarantine for 10 days after the last exposure unless they are fully vaccinated. Children younger than 12 are not eligible for vaccinations.

The state, however, allows unvaccinated students and staff members who were exposed to remain on campus if both the infected person and the close contact were masked during the exposure.

If the state guidelines were in place, many more students could remain on campus, said Las Virgenes Unified Supt. Dan Stepenosky, who is among those raising the issue. His district of about 10,000 students had 96 students in quarantine Thursday; 92 of them could be in class under the state guidelines, Stepenosky said.

In L.A. Unified, the state’s largest school system, 6,500 students, or about 1 in 70, missed one or more days of school during the first week; more than half of the absences were due to quarantines. About 1,000 employees missed at least one day of work — about half because of quarantines.

Ferrer said that health analysts are studying data and evaluating whether it is advisable to ease some restrictions. Very few children are becoming seriously ill, although they can spread the infection to others who are at greater risk. Among the issues being examined is what should qualify as a close contact.

“Delta has made it harder for us to get a good sense for what that definition would need to look like,” Ferrer said.

Research that led to past relaxation of school safety measures — and ultimately hastened the reopening of many campuses in the spring — was based on data collected before the rise of the Delta variant, she said.


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