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Newsom promised 6 million COVID tests for students. Only half have arrived

Julissa Aguirre, 12, collects a nasal specimen at a testing site in Rancho Cucamonga
Julissa Aguirre, 12, collects a nasal specimen by self- swabbing at a COVID-19 testing site in Rancho Cucamonga.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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Gov. Gavin Newsom promised that schools would receive at-home COVID-19 tests in time for students to safely return to campuses after winter break, as health officials warned of a surge in cases over the holidays due in part to the Omicron variant.

But as school districts began returning Monday, many did so without having received a single test from the state.

Just half of the 6 million tests Newsom said the state would purchase for schools were delivered to counties by Monday. As of Tuesday, Newsom’s office said, deliveries rose to 3.4 million, and 2.8 million more were scheduled to arrive within two days.

California ended up purchasing more at-home kits than originally announced, with 2.9 million arriving in the state’s warehouse a day or two before being shipped to counties, Newsom’s office said.

It’s unclear how long it will take for those tests to make their way from county facilities to schools to families.

The impact has varied across the state, with deliveries of testing supplies failing to arrive in time for scores of schools that resumed in-person instruction on Monday and Tuesday. Those included campuses in Long Beach, Rocklin, Sacramento, Burbank, San Leandro and Carlsbad.

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Tanya Schwarz, a Long Beach Unified parent, scrambled to acquire a test before sending her daughter to school Monday and said she worries that campuses will close because of a lack of testing.

A Long Beach Unified spokesperson confirmed Monday that the district had not received any tests.

“I just feel completely let down by our local, state and federal leaders,” Schwarz said. “It feels as if they have had no foresight, even though scientists were ringing the alarm about Omicron many weeks ago.”

Newsom vowed last month to purchase 6 million tests to hand out prior to districts resuming classes, as part of an effort to ensure that schools could remain open as at-home tests became hard to find and infection rates climbed. His plan called for making one or two rapid at-home tests available to every K-12 public school student prior to the return from winter break.

The cost of the tests was not immediately available.

“I do not want to see our schools shut down,” Newsom said while announcing the purchase during a Dec. 22 news conference.

The governor said families would “get those results back quickly” to “make sure when they go back in person they’re doing so safely, knowing that they have not contracted the disease over the holidays.”

The state’s Public Health Department said shipping delays due to storms across the country over the last two weeks led to fewer tests being delivered to California.

With some of the state’s school districts — including the largest, Los Angeles Unified — not returning to campuses until next week, there is still time to deliver tests, a spokesman for Newsom said. Data provided by Newsom’s office show that about 43% of California’s 6 million students had not returned to school by Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, education offices in 29 of California’s 58 counties reported that they had not received any tests, according to the California County Superintendents Educational Services Assn. Twenty-two counties had received enough tests for students, while the remaining seven had not confirmed shipments with the association or had received partial shipments.

Counties will distribute tests to school districts, which will determine how to give them to parents.

“I will say this has been quite challenging to navigate, since nearly every school had dismissed for break when they decided to roll this out,” CCSEA spokesperson Kindra Britt said. “Those that have received them have worked very hard with their teams to distribute as quickly as possible upon delivery, and before students returned. Most have not received their tests yet, with no delivery date confirmed. Either way, many have students that started coming back today, so the messaging of how important this was to do before they came back is not applicable.”

When the tests didn’t arrive at many districts over the weekend, school officials began sending out emails to families.

“You may have heard that, this holiday season, California is encouraging families to access COVID-19 testing for their children before they return to school after the winter break. Unfortunately, there are no tests available for the district to distribute to families,” Carlsbad Unified said in a message to parents, adding that the state could not tell the district when a promised shipment would arrive.

The Los Angeles Unified School District announced Monday that students and staff will be required to take a COVID test before returning to campus when classes resume next week. The district, which will have at-home tests available for pickup on Friday and Saturday, has required tests as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly in Los Angeles County, where the transmission rate is estimated to be greater than at any point since early in the pandemic.

“What happens in the schools mirrors what happens in the community,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA. “The risk of outbreaks increases with outbreaks in the community.”

At-home rapid tests have been in short supply for weeks as holiday travelers attempted to safeguard trips with prior screenings. The shortage prompted the Biden administration to announce plans to buy 500 million at-home rapid tests to be mailed for free to Americans who request them, starting in January.

“It’s a good idea to test students before going back,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease expert and professor of medicine at UC San Francisco. “The problem is we are telling people to test without giving them the means of being able to do so. That’s a failure of our government — not just Newsom, but the Biden administration as well. We don’t have the availability.”

Gandhi, however, said widespread testing for students returning to school isn’t as critical as it was in the past, as vaccines are readily available for school-age children, masks are worn inside, and those with COVID-19 symptoms are required to stay home.

“There is nothing more clear, and that is school is essential,” Gandhi said.

Board members at Burbank Unified School District had considered delaying Monday’s return from winter break until next week but resumed class on schedule in the face of parents’ concerns about a possible return to online classes.

School board member Steve Ferguson said resuming classes on Monday was the wrong thing to do, but he felt his hands were tied.

“There’s no time left, and we’re being forced to kind of say this is what works. ... It’s a moot point, and there’s nothing we can implement at this point,” he said at Sunday’s board meeting.

In early December, the Newsom administration sent out an additional 2 million at-home tests to 3,000 schools across the state, allowing them to send the tests home with students before winter break.

“Keeping school open — that’s the big goal that people are trying to keep in mind while keeping kids and staff safe,” said Dave Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education.

Gordon said his office, which oversees 13 school districts, has received most of the 215,000 tests promised by the state but was still working to deliver them this week.

“We can start pushing out some of the ones we’ve gotten so far, and districts have to push them out to families,” Gordon said.

The tests, however, will arrive on most campuses after students return this week, he said.


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