Editorial: Where are the COVID tests Newsom promised for schools?

Kindergarten student Matteo Rodriguez gets a COVID-19 test in April at Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School in Maywood.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Omicron coronavirus variant was already spreading rapidly when California schools let out last month for winter break. Health officials across the nation warned that the spread was bound to accelerate as people gathered over the holidays.

So it should have been obvious that precautions would be necessary to avoid back-to-school super-spreader events in January and a return to the disaster of remote learning.

The good news is that state health and education officials coordinated to get some 2 million rapid COVID-19 test kits out to 3,000 California public schools before kids left for winter break, according to the state Department of Education.

Students in Sacramento City Unified, Oakland Unified and San Diego Unified were among those who went home for vacation with COVID test kits in their backpacks. Helpful reminders from district officials instructed parents to administer the tests over New Year’s weekend and report the results online before sending kids to school on Monday. Even though students were not required to test to return to school, the rollout gave parents and school employees some assurance and surely prevented some new cases from developing.

The bad news is that in a state with 10,000 schools, less than half received test kits before winter break began. Gov. Gavin Newsom waited until three days before Christmas to announce a broader effort to send out another 6 million test kits for students. About half were delivered to local governments last week. The rest are in transit, some delayed by recent storms. The goal, Newsom said Dec. 22, was to make sure students could safely return to campus “knowing that they have not contracted the disease over the holidays.”

But by then, of course, schools had been on vacation for several days, making it difficult to reach many families. State education officials said they worked throughout the holidays to get test kits to schools, prioritizing those that opened this week — but throughout the state, the scramble was on.


San Francisco school officials told NPR they wouldn’t receive their test kits until later this week. Stockton Unified on Sunday sent parents a letter saying the district had no information on when it would get test kits promised by the state. The Los Alamitos district told parents that Orange County education officials had not yet received test kits from the state. Long Beach Unified sent parents an email asking them to keep kids home if they seem sick — without saying a word about providing tests. A Long Beach official told a Los Angeles Times editorial writer that the district had not received any test kits but hoped to get them later this week.

Los Angeles Unified has a little more wiggle room because of its longer winter vacation. After an emergency Board of Education meeting Monday, the district announced that all students and employees will be required to show proof of a negative test before returning to campus on Jan. 11. Families can pick up at-home test kits on Friday and Saturday or can schedule a test through a district testing center (details here).

But too many California kids went back to school this week without knowing whether they’re spreading the highly contagious Omicron variant. That puts the health of students and staff at risk — which could in turn lead to school closures. California has so far avoided widespread closures during this surge, but districts around the country — including in Atlanta, Cleveland and parts of New Jersey — have returned to remote instruction.

Newsom said he’s committed to keeping schools open despite the surge in cases, a goal we strongly support. But meeting that commitment will take more than empty promises. Newsom and California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond must resolve the situation immediately. Remote instruction was horrendous for many children and working parents, and California should do everything possible to avoid going back to it. That means the state must do a better job at adapting to the ebb and flow of this dreadful pandemic by reliably getting COVID test kits to families.