Omicron surge anxiety, absences and confusion mark first day of new LAUSD semester

 Students hug as they return to school.
Students returned to campus, and friends, at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar on Tuesday. Every student needed a negative coronavirus test result.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Hundreds of Los Angeles Unified school district employees rushed to campuses to help cover for absent teachers and staff. Students waited in long lines to get on campus after the health screening system sputtered during morning rush. And in many classrooms, empty desks reflected both a massive increase in positive coronavirus cases among students and pandemic-worried families who kept students home.

Yet amid a record 62,000 positive coronavirus cases among students and staff, the nation’s second-largest school district opened its campuses and welcomed hundreds of thousands back, with a number of families and students saying they felt reassured by safety precautions the district was taking — including mandatory weekly testing and masking.

“It’s a little concerning, but I think we’ve done all we can in terms of getting them ready, getting them tested and making sure that they’re ready to come back to school,” said Pablo Pacheco as he dropped his 6-year-old off at Yorkdale Elementary in Highland Park. “All we can do is do our best.”


At least 760 schools were reporting more than 10 positive cases on Tuesday, according to an L.A. Times database of district cases. About 14% of the nearly 460,000 tests submitted from Jan. 4-10 were positive, according to the district’s data. The surge is being fueled by the highly contagious Omicron strain of the coronavirus, now dominant nationwide.

Students had to show a negative test to enter school grounds and as of Tuesday afternoon about 12% still had not uploaded results, according to the district.

Students wait to pass through a gate as adults check printouts
Students’ names are checked on a list before being let onto campus during first day at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar on Tuesday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

About 70% of students in a district of about 450,000 attended on Tuesday, which means about 135,000 were absent, according to the district’s preliminary numbers.

“There’s still some nerves and hesitancy,” said school board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin. “Hopefully each day that goes by, more families will feel confident that their kids are safe and well taken care of and learning at school.”

About 2,000 teachers were absent and had their classes covered by substitutes as well as certificated district administrators and staff who do not work in schools. And 262 bus routes had to be covered by alternate drivers.

L.A. is not alone in experiencing tumult. Across the state, schools are struggling under the strain of surging cases, staffing shortages and low attendance. Other districts across Los Angeles County have seen drops in attendance since returning from winter break, including Alhambra Unified, Beverly Hills Unified and El Monte City school districts.


On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that further expanded flexibility for school districts to hire and retain substitute teachers. The order lowered state barriers to hiring short-term substitutes, assignment extensions and flexibility on bringing on retired teachers until March 31, 2022.

Interim Supt. Megan K. Reilly acknowledged the challenges and the morning delays caused when the Daily Pass health screening system failed to work well when it was needed most.

“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 knew that today was not going to be a day that we didn’t have some bumps along the road.”

An adult drops a child off from a car. Both wear masks.
Students return to Olive Vista Middle School on Tuesday in Sylmar.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The system was strained as students tried Tuesday morning to upload negative coronavirus results in order to be allowed on campus and many others arrived in need of tests.

Empty seats were noticeable on the first day back at James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, where there were 330 active cases, according The Times database.


One teen said that 12 students were missing from his math class. Another said there were three empty tables in her English class, about 12 students in all.

Knowledge of the high case rate kept students on high alert.

“It kind of feels empty and sad,” sophomore Jade Arciniaga, 16, said. “I was nervous in class, too, because I was worried the person next to me had it.”

Some students said they felt reassured as the day went on and they saw safety measures in place.

“I don’t know if I was ready for it, because of the situation, but then after I saw they were taking precautions and telling us it would be OK and to not stress about it,” said junior Gisselle Escamilla, 16. “After, I felt OK — I can handle it.”

At Esteban Torres High School, one teacher who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said she felt administrators were unprepared for staffing shortages despite knowing on Monday that large numbers would be out due to a positive test. Teachers who did show up had to scramble to cover classes and give up their prep periods, she said.

With fewer than half of students in her classes Tuesday, she held off on going over her syllabus, classroom rules and giving out a first assignment.


“The kids are really bummed. And I’m bummed too,” she said.

In the East region, which includes Torres High, planning sessions were held to anticipate employee shortages, local staff were deployed and “instruction and safety continue to be our top priority,” said Elvia Perez Cano, spokesperson for the region. “We are proud of how our teachers, students, and parents came together to prepare for the spring semester.”

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, said she would rather be at home. Her soccer games, like all district sports activities, had been canceled for the week and she wondered if the cancellations will extend further.

She got boosted with a vaccine 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.”

Two students wear face masks and hold clipboards as they tower above a toy car and figure of a mechanic on a school blacktop.
Eighth-graders Michael Magana, left, and Lance Tolentino, at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, demonstrate their engineering project on the first day of school Tuesday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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

Gabriel Tenorio’s 5-year-old son entered Euclid Avenue Elementary in Boyle Heights just before the bell rang. Tenorio said he didn’t have any issues with the district’s Daily Pass system. And 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,” Tenorio said.

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

At Yorkdale Elementary, Zofia O’Rourke, 5, walked to school holding her parents hands. Diana and Sean O’Rourke said anticipating the return was a nerve-racking experience, but like Tenorio, they said LAUSD’s testing and masking guidance made them feel safe. Zofia is also 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.