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Editorial: The biggest benefit of mandatory coronavirus testing? Helping L.A. schools to reopen

Children and adults in masks, and media with cameras, stand near a sign that says "Daily health screening questions."
Students and parents listen to Principal Josefina Flores, center, talk about COVID-19 safety precautions during an L.A. Unified “meet and greet” with school medical advisors at Euclid Avenue Elementary last week.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

School reopens in Los Angeles in less than two weeks, and this time the assumption is that almost all children will return to campus for conventional daily schooling, sitting at desks with teachers in front of them. And that still seems like a safe bet, even though the Delta variant of the coronavirus overturned a lot of expectations this summer.

To date, only about 4,000 students have signed up for remote lessons — around 1% of L.A. Unified’s total enrollment. That’s good news; if feasible, kids need to be in classrooms. Families have until Friday to notify the district of their intentions, and only those who have chosen at-home schooling in advance will be accommodated.

So things are looking good for a return to in-person learning, though nothing will be certain until that first big day of classes. If anything, the school district’s recent decision to test all students and staff for the coronavirus, vaccinated or not, should help keep classrooms full. The testing will be weekly and mandatory.

Though not all parents are thrilled with the idea of mandatory testing, and some mutter about their rights not being respected, they need to get over it. Students younger than 12 can’t be vaccinated, and it would be legally tricky to mandate inoculation for the rest because the vaccines haven’t received full and final approval from the FDA. That means the district’s best shot, pun intended, is to get a regular handle on how common the coronavirus and its very transmissible Delta variant are at the schools.

One-fifth of students and staff will be tested daily, with reports provided hours before school opens the next day. That timely information should help the district contain infections to the fewest number of people.

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The most important aspect of testing is its effect on families, especially low-income Black and Latino families who have seen their neighbors, friends and relatives die of COVID-19. Many of them were hesitant about sending their children back to school even after health authorities deemed it safe. Assuming that illness rates stay low, families will gain a sense of reassurance from the weekly tests and keep their kids in school.

That said, this is a complex and extremely expensive undertaking. With 500,000 students and staff expected to be tested at a cost of $31 each, L.A. Unified will be shelling out $15 million a week. The district will be reimbursed with a combination of federal, state and county funds, some of it specifically targeted to school safety. But if infection and illness rates are low over time, the district should consider less-frequent testing; some of that money could be used for instruction and materials.

Most important is efficiency. Back in the spring, even with the limited number of students on campus, kids sometimes missed out on a couple of hours of class time because of long waits to be tested.

Testing 100,000 staff and students every school day is a formidable undertaking. The district has a chance to show families it knows how to do safety right. Students shouldn’t have to miss a lot of class in order to go to class.


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