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Schools urged to tighten testing, upgrade masks when they reopen Monday amid Omicron surge

A young boy gets a nasal swab coronavirus test at school.
A kindergarten student gets a coronavirus test at an L.A. County campus in the fall. Health officials are urging schools to keep testing students when campuses begin to reopen Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Schools need to brace for increased COVID-19 outbreaks when districts resume classes after winter break, county officials warned as they raced to send out COVID-19 test kits and urged students and staff to increase the quality of their masks.

For 50 of the 80 school districts in Los Angeles County, Monday will be the first day of classes after at least a two-week break marked by exploding numbers of coronavirus cases fueled by the Omicron and Delta variants. Cases in California have more than quadrupled — and school caseloads are sure to be affected, public health officials said.

“We did really, really well at schools in the fall,” said county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer in a Thursday media briefing.

Ferrer noted that there’d been on average fewer than a dozen outbreaks per week across some 3,000 schools during the fall, which were typically small and immediately contained.

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“But that will not be the case as we come back, because we do, in fact, have the Omicron variant circulating much more widely,” she said. “And we already know that it is leading to more outbreaks — even over the break, amongst school sports teams, for example.”

In L.A. County, new weekly cases more than tripled the number reported in the prior week to more than 20,000, and 1 in 5 tests is coming back positive for the virus, Ferrer said Thursday. Although the danger of serious illness and death appears lower than last year — due substantially to vaccination — risks remain as the number of those hospitalized nearly doubled in one week.

In California, where everyone on a campus must wear masks indoors, Ferrer urged parents, students and educators to use more protective face coverings, such as surgical masks or N95 and KN95 masks, which have metal fittings for the nose.

“This is the time to upgrade the mask,” Ferrer said. “And not because the cloth masks don’t work at all. They do. But the other masks work better. And we need everything right now.”

She also endorsed maintaining coronavirus testing and expanding it where possible.

“I feel like testing at schools in the fall was one of the strategies that was most effective because it was coupled with really good contact tracing,” Ferrer said. “We tested and then we were able to identify cases very quickly — and all of their close contacts. And make good decisions about how to get people quickly isolated and, where appropriate, quarantined. So testing still is something we need to do at schools.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently committed to providing one to two tests per student across the state for the January reopening. County officials also are distributing tests from their own supply chain and have committed to providing kits to anyone exposed to the infection.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest system, has carried out the country’s largest weekly testing program. Those tests — of all students and adults — will continue at least through January. School board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin wants that timeline extended.

“With the alarming increases in COVID cases now — though with generally less severe symptoms — I join parents in advocating to continue weekly testing for the foreseeable future,” Franklin said. “I myself find peace in getting my weekly results, and we all now know how important mental health is to getting through this pandemic of physical health.”

L.A. Unified is among the school systems scheduled to resume on Jan. 10. The L.A. teachers union, in a statement, said it would “monitor the situation over the next few days.”

No county K-12 school system has so far indicated it plans to delay the January semester or return even temporarily to remote learning, said Debra Duardo, the superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

In Las Virgenes Unified, which straddles the border with Ventura County, the plan is to “stay the course and open up on Jan 3rd with tightened up protocols and procedures,” Supt. Dan Stepenosky said in a memo to his Board of Education. “The case rates are very concerning, but we have high levels of vaccinations in our staff, students and community... From my perspective our students need to be on campus for their academic success, social, emotional and mental well-being.”

The El Rancho Unified School District, in Pico Rivera, would be ready to pivot quickly if necessary, said Supt. Frances Esparza.

“If we should have to enter a school closure per a [county] recommendation, then we will provide a successful virtual online schooling program that our teachers have mastered throughout these last 19 to 20 months of COVID-19’s existence,” Esparza said.

On the Palos Verdes peninsula, Supt. Alex Cherniss alerted his school community that “all options are on the table.” In a Dec. 28 communication, Cherniss noted that on Monday, “there were over 50 COVID-positive cases at our district testing sites, which was a single-day high since the beginning of this pandemic.”

Teachers are concerned but also supportive of student needs, said Tim Coleman, president of the Palos Verdes Faculty Assn.

“Our members have expressed a variety of opinions regarding the return from winter break,” Coleman said. “We are as concerned about the health and safety of staff and students as we are about the mental health and learning loss implications of a delay in returning as planned.”

The concerns in L.A. County school districts are mirrored across the country.

In New York City, which is averaging more than 25,000 probable cases per day, the nation’s largest school system is “strongly encouraging all eligible students to get vaccinated, and all students and staff should get tested prior to the resumption of classes on January 3,” city leaders announced. The city also is adding testing sites and will double random testing at school, which is conducted with students whose parents have turned in consent forms.

“We are moving closer to a safe reopening of schools. But we are not there yet,” the union representing New York City’s teachers said in a statement.

In Chicago, the teachers union has demanded that students test negative before returning to class, a condition the school system has not agreed to — citing other safety measures being taken as adequate. One school, through its safety committee, nearly was compelled to return to remote instruction.

Seattle Public Schools will be closed Monday for rapid testing of all staff and students, the district announced Thursday. School will resume in person on Tuesday.

In Miami, Supt. Alberto Carvalho — soon to become the L.A. schools chief — questioned Florida’s ban on requiring students to wear masks in light of the surge.

“Of particular concern is the double-digit rise in pediatric COVID-related hospitalizations over the last several weeks,” Carvalho wrote in a Thursday letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis. “Currently, the positivity rate in Miami-Dade is estimated at 25 percent, and experts have expressed concern that infections will continue to rise through January.”

A district spokeswoman told The Times that the Miami-Dade district will “explore any and all legal means by which we can continue to enhance protective measures for children in schools. This could include a possible reinstatement of a mask mandate.”

In the meantime, all adults must wear masks.


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