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LAUSD to end weekly COVID tests and spend $5 million on prizes to encourage vaccinations

Students 12 and older are supposed to have their first shot by Nov. 21.

With a deadline for student COVID-19 vaccinations days away — and about 72% in compliance — the Los Angeles Board of Education has authorized an estimated $5 million for prizes and treats as incentives, including gift cards to Amazon and Target, tickets to “Hamilton” and food trucks on campus.

Separately, officials also announced that weekly coronavirus testing for all students and adults will conclude when the winter break begins in December, a massive effort that has carried out 500,000 tests a week, at a total cost estimated at $350 million.

The incentive program, already underway, is part of a broad-based effort to boost vaccination rates by Sunday, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s self-imposed deadline for students 12 and older to receive a vaccine dose. The only choice for students 12 to 17 is the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Those 18 and older could choose instead the two-dose Moderna or one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

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Students must be fully vaccinated by the Jan. 10 start of the second semester or they will not be allowed on campus. Their options would be to pursue their education outside L.A. Unified or transfer to City of Angels, a district independent study program that has faced struggles this year.

The incentives are mainly raffles, and anyone in compliance is eligible — meaning those who are vaccinated, have an approved medical exemption or have a rare authorized extension. Religious exemptions are not being granted.

Raffle prizes have also included gift cards to grocery stores; tickets to Disneyland, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Universal Studios Hollywood; and graduation-night entertainment packages. Some of the money is being spent centrally, but regional administrators have funds to come up with their own plans. Some have brought in food trucks; Wilson High in El Sereno has logo T-shirts for every student who follows the rules.

“It’s really designed to acknowledge families for their efforts in engaging in this bigger public health initiative,” said Sara Mooney, the district’s coordinator of civic engagement. “It’s all about keeping families safe and students learning.”

In approving financial incentives at its Tuesday meeting, the school board had to waive a rule that sets “a limit of $40 for personal gifts to students and parents/guardians.” A report to the board estimated that rewards would range from $100 to $350, on average. The $5 million is paid for with taxpayer funding. Additional gifts will be “sponsored and funded” by donors.

The spending serves “a legitimate public and educational purpose,” according to the board report.

The incentives in the nation’s second-largest school system resemble an unrelated $116.5-million state program unveiled in May. In a series of drawings through June, vaccinated Californians were eligible to win prizes ranging from $50 to $1.5 million.

Other efforts by L.A. Unified include expanding access to vaccines and working in collaboration with community organizations.

By Jan. 10, “we’re expecting all of our students to have their two doses already and recorded and uploaded,” Anthony Aguilar, the district’s chief of special education, equity and access, said in a briefing to the school board.

The percentage of students who have had at least one dose or have otherwise complied is about 71.9%, said school board member Jackie Goldberg, based on an internal briefing. “Probably 64%” are fully vaccinated, she added. The number could be higher once families upload documentation. She said the county health department “thinks we are at about 70% based on addresses of those who live in LAUSD.”

District leaders remain hopeful. Early figures on an employee vaccine mandate were alarmingly low, according to sources; officials refused to release the information as the deadline neared. Ultimately, 97% of employees either complied or were granted a medical or religious exemption.

Parents opposed to the student mandate staged their latest in a series of protests Tuesday outside district headquarters, while others called in with their objections. Board meetings have been closed to the public since the start of the pandemic.

A parent who called in and identified herself as Wendy accused the school board of using incentives as a form of “segregation” and “humiliation.” She added that the board was attempting to “isolate and target vulnerable children in front of their peers.”

For families willing to comply with the vaccination mandate, officials have decided to ease some restrictions.

The pending end of wide-scale coronavirus testing will mark a turning point in what became a signature program of former L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner, who stepped down at the end of June.

Infections have declined significantly since the start of school this fall. Last week, tests found 74 infections among employees and 521 among students — in a school system with about 450,000 students. Among employees, only eight close contacts were sent home to quarantine; the figure was 2,309 among students.

Although concerns of a winter uptick remain, officials are confident that increasing vaccination rates and other safety measures will eliminate the need for universal weekly testing.

Also in January, students at middle and high schools — where the vaccine mandate will be in force — will no longer have to wear masks outside. The same will hold for elementary schools where 85% of students are vaccinated. Students ages 5 to 11 recently became eligible for vaccination, but the district is not extending its mandate to them.

In addition, elementary students, vaccinated or not, will no longer be sent home automatically if they are close contacts of a positive coronavirus case. They can remain in school on a “modified quarantine,” in which students are tested for a coronavirus infection and monitored for symptoms. The goal is to keep more students in class.

These changes will bring L.A. Unified largely in line with county and state guidelines.

The updates at Tuesday’s meeting also included a hiring report. With the end of the first semester approaching, the district is short nearly 700 classroom teachers, about the same number as a month ago. This caused frustrated board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin to question whether the district needs to work smarter to close the gap.

The situation was exacerbated, she was told, by the transfer of teachers with a vaccination exemption to the City of Angels program, where they will not interact in person with students or other employees.

The teacher shortage is not unique to L.A. Unified and has forced the district to make its job application process easier and faster — and make the work itself seem as appealing as possible.

“The candidate experience is the most important piece,” said Ileana Davalos, the district’s chief human resources officer.

The school district also is trying to hire hundreds of classroom aides in schools where students need the most help, as well as more than 500 counselors.


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