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More than 62,000 LAUSD students, staff out with positive coronavirus cases as schools open

Students hug after not seeing each other since the end of last semester at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar.
Eighth-graders Katarina Weinzierl, left, and Isabel Ramos hug after not seeing each other since the end of last semester at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles Unified students returned to campus from winter break Tuesday amid a record-breaking surge in coronavirus cases, as schools grappled with staffing shortages, student absences and anxious parents and students, testing the district’s carefully laid plans to open schools.

District data Tuesday showed more than 62,000 active cases among students and staff. More than 760 schools were reporting more than 10 cases, more than 140 reporting more than 100 cases and six high schools reporting more than 300, according to an L.A. Times database of district cases.

About 15% of the more than 450,000 tests submitted from Jan. 4-10 were positive, according to the district’s data.

School board member Nick Melvoin said he has heard from parents who were worried about the high case rate identified by the district’s required testing for all after winter break. Students had to show a negative test to enter school grounds Tuesday.

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“That’s the point of baseline testing — and those 60,000 or so positive cases are not on school campuses today, which make our schools even safer than neighboring districts,” he said.

Interim Supt. Megan K. Reilly Reilly said more than 1,800 district employees had been deployed to school sites Tuesday to assist with the return. She acknowledged the delay some families faced when the district’s Daily Pass health screening system wasn’t working well during the morning rush to school.

“We thought we might have something like this occur. We apologize for that,” she said at a news conference at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar. “I think everyone’s getting through,” she said, adding that school principals were prepared with physical paperwork to check students into school. “They have a daily list that they can actually print out and if things get slowed down, they actually can just go to a manual list.”

The system was strained as students worked Tuesday morning to upload negative coronavirus results in order to be allowed on campus and many others arrived still in need of tests. About 86% of students had submitted their results by Monday evening, district officials said.

 Students return to Olive Vista Middle School on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 in Sylmar, CA.
Students return to Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Tiago Domingos of Cheviot Hills said he tried to get his 6-year-old son tested for coronavirus before the start of classes. But the family was out of state and he had trouble locating a test. On Tuesday, they were sent to a nearby school for testing and waited about three hours. Domingos said he believes school officials are doing their best.

“They’re trying, I don’t blame them,” he said. “They’re dealing with ever-changing rules with beyond subpar tech supporting it.”

At Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School, the last student filed into campus about 30 minutes after the start of the school day, and several said they were anxious about the return amid high coronavirus rates.

Jackie Pascual, 15, had been waiting for about 15 minutes as school staff checked students’ names manually against a paper list. Pascual said she would rather be at home. Her soccer games, like all district sports games, have been canceled for the week and she wonders if the cancellations will extend further. “What’s one week going to do?” she asked.

She got boosted on Thursday and was masked up, but knew that contracting the virus wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

“There’s not really other options,” she said about coming back. “I obviously don’t want to get COVID, but I have to go to school.”

District officials said the extensive safety protocols the district has adopted have prepared them to meet a moment that is exerting pressure on schools across the country as they work to keep students learning in person.

L.A. Unified holds a unique position among school districts with the largest weekly coronavirus testing program in the nation, a massive effort that tests every student and staff member — more than 500,000 people — every week. The program is key to the school district’s ability to identify positive cases as a soon as possible to help fend off outbreaks.

“Omicron is really testing the infrastructure and capacity of school districts,” said school board President Kelly Gonez. “We’re lucky to have a strong foundation in place to prepare us for this moment.”

In addition to the testing requirement, the district will continue to uphold previous safety measures, including masking indoors and outdoors and upgraded air filtration systems. About 90% of students 12 and older have been vaccinated, district officials said.

In a statement, Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the L.A. teachers union, said: “LAUSD is in a better position than most others in the country because of the safety infrastructure that educators and families fought for and won during this pandemic.

COVID case numbers are still going up. Kids under 5 won’t be eligible for vaccination for months. How can parents make smart decisions in the meantime?

“The terrain is changing by the day, and educators will continue to prioritize the health and safety of everyone in our education community,” she said.

While some families struggled on Tuesday, others described the return as relatively smooth.

Gabriel Tenorio’s 5-year-old son entered Euclid Elementary in Boyle Heights just before the bell rang. Tenorio didn’t have any issues with the district’s Daily Pass system. He was able to access it at 7 a.m. and took a screenshot to mitigate delays at check-in.

Any concerns he and his wife had leading up to the start of school were addressed Saturday when the couple received calls from the principal and office administration.

“These weren’t recordings from the district. Perhaps our school goes above and beyond. Seems to me it should be the standard,” Torino said.

He believes that back-to-school concerns are merited in some parts of the country. But he doesn’t share those fears right now, largely due to the safety policies in place at his son’s school.

“I think LAUSD is proving that an integrated system of care and safety centered around a community institution in conjunction with mandates can protect an entire community. And I think our community is on board here in Boyle Heights,” he said.

At Yorkdale Elementary in Highland Park, as parents dropped their children off for the first day of school, some said they were worried. Would their child come home infected? Others said school was the best option.

Esther Soraano was confident her 11- and 5-year-old daughters would be safe and they were happy to return to school.

“I’ve been OK. I’m not scared or anything,” she said. “I have faith in the Lord and know he will strengthen us.” She said last year online was a struggle. “They lost so much education.”

Zofia O’Rourke, 5, walked in the middle of her parents, each holding a hand before letting her go into the school yard. Diana and Sean O’Rourke said anticipating the return was a nerve-racking experience, but LAUSD’s testing and masking guidance made them feel safe. Zofia is vaccinated, her parents said.

“We’ve done everything we can ,” Diana said. “At this point, there’s not much else to do really other than to just do everything we can to be safe,” Sean said.

Times data journalist Iris Lee contributed to this story.


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