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L.A. County public, private school staff must wear high-grade masks; rules for athletes tighten

A nurse wears an N95 mask.
Nurse Brandi Hill wears an N95 mask at Martin Luther King Community Hospital in this file photo. All school personnel will soon have to wear medical grade masks.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Employees at all Los Angeles County public and private schools will have to wear medical grade masks at work and students and staff must wear masks outdoors in crowded spaces under tightened rules issued in anticipation of classes beginning Monday amid a major surge of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Schools will have two weeks from the date of reopening after winter break to comply with the mask rules. The order was issued late Friday to the county’s 80 school districts from public health director Barbara Ferrer “in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.” About 50 K-12 school districts reopen Monday; the other 30, including Los Angeles Unified, are back the following week.

The rules also lay out stricter protocols for handling athletic team outbreaks and when testing is to take place for students to remain on campus after being exposed to a coronavirus infection.

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Los Angeles County recorded more than 27,000 new cases on the final day of 2021, far above last winter’s peak average of 16,000 cases a day. Nearly 1 in 4 people who are being tested are positive for a coronavirus infection, officials said. The daily totals of new coronavirus cases are doubling every two days.

So far, the current surge is not as deadly as last year’s — because most county residents are fully vaccinated and possibly because Omicron could be less virulent. But hospitalizations are rising fast and officials are concerned that children and employees will carry the virus into schools after family holiday gatherings and social events.

The number of those testing positive for the coronavirus in Los Angeles County was even higher over the New Year’s weekend than it was last winter.

Under the latest safety rules, students who feel healthy but were close contacts of an infected person must take a coronavirus test within two weeks. They do not have to quarantine at home unless they have symptoms or test positive. The county recommends — but does not require — that students be tested immediately after exposure and then again on day five, according to the letter.

Masks must be worn outdoors “in crowded spaces where physical distancing is not feasible” except when actively eating and drinking. In the fall, outdoor masking was not required, although individual districts could do so. L.A. Unified — the nation’s second-largest district — was among the school systems that required outdoor masking.

The county letter also recommended — but did not require — that students wear higher-grade, not cloth, masks and urged anyone eligible to get a booster dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Athletic teams with four linked cases over 14 days would have to suspend group activities for at least seven days, obtaining county health department approval before resuming.

Additional safety measures would be triggered if county COVID-related hospitalizations surpass 3,000. Numbers are well below that — for now.

“With these policies we seek to strike a balance between the safety of students and staff on the one hand, and your capacity to implement additional protective measures on the other,” Ferrer wrote in her letter.

With so many school systems set to open Monday, officials would have been hard-pressed to abide by the new rules before the return of students. The changes were not a complete surprise; Ferrer had signaled they were under consideration at a briefing earlier last week with senior school officials.

With infections surpassing record levels, county officials decided Friday it was time to act, sending out the news late in the day to school and district leaders.

“I apologize for disrupting your New Year’s Eve, but wanted to get information to you as soon as possible,” wrote Debra Duardo, superintendent for the L.A. County Office of Education, which works closely with the county health department. “We received an email from [county health] at 4:35 p.m. today regarding updates to K-12 policies in response to Omicron with a request to provide this information to all 80 districts ASAP. I realize that these changes will create challenges to an already difficult situation for all of you. I am sorry that this is giving you such short notice.”

Los Angeles Unified, with about a third of the county’s students, opens on Jan. 10. In the fall, it was one of the few districts that tested all adults and students every week — and recently announced that testing will continue through January. But some parents and groups are clamoring for more aggressive action, urging baseline testing next week before classes start.

“Schools already have the infrastructure in place for weekly testing, so starting it one week early should not be complicated and will provide a much-needed baseline,” wrote leaders of the group Parents Supporting Teachers, which includes both parents and teachers. “Everyone who will be stepping inside of a school building the second week in January deserves to be informed and feel safe.”

Parents John Leddy and Christy Lambertson echoed the call for baseline testing, even urging testing twice a week and consideration of delaying the start of the semester “especially if the numbers are as bad or worse by the end of next week,” they wrote in a letter to school district officials.

“Perhaps LAUSD should allow families to home school with daily lesson plans, provided by teachers, which requires parents and caregivers to be more actively engaged in their child’s daily education for a short term of one or two weeks,” wrote the parents, who have a child at Beethoven Street Elementary in Mar Vista. “LAUSD must recognize that we can’t continue as though this horrible surge isn’t leaps and bounds worse than when we left the campus.”

Families that want to be tested before school resumes have some options, with the district extending the hours of its testing centers beginning Monday. Rapid tests supplied by the state — one or two per student — also will soon be available.

L.A. Unified had required baseline testing in the fall, although districts that did not do the testing seemed able to operate safely at that time. LAUSD is in regular contact with health experts and is prepared to follow their guidance, school board member Jackie Goldberg told The Times last week.

In a Friday tweet, L.A. Unified officials tried to reassure parents and staff: “We will adapt our safety standards as needed in order to remain responsive to the changing conditions of the pandemic.”


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