LOS ANGELES, CA — If students return to their classrooms in the Los Angeles Unified School District, this year, it will be with the help of the nation’s most ambitious testing program. The district has already begun testing thousands of staffers and students, working toward the goal of testing more than 700,000 students along with their teachers and family members before children can return to their classrooms. No district across the nation has plans to test so many members of the community. The $150 million testing program is considered the most ambitious of any school district in the nation.
Still, “any return to schools is not without risk,” said AUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner. District officials have not announced a date for the widespread reopening of classrooms. Families across the county found out last week that health officials would not consider reopening waivers until November.
“The dizzying changes in guidelines and pronouncements by health authorities over the past many months haven’t changed the basic facts about COVID-19,” LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said. “It’s a highly contagious and deadly disease. We’re going to be careful and we’re going to be deliberate about bringing students back to schools.”
Toward that end, LAUSD is revamping cleaning standards, installing air filtration systems, ordering personal protective equipment and reorganizing classrooms, in addition to rolling out a system for testing students, staff and family members for the virus.
Last week, the unprecedented districtwide COVID-19 began.
Since Thursday, the district has tested more than 2,500 staff members and their children each day with plans to soon test 20,000 people each day. The district has the capacity to eventually test up to 40,000 per day.
Of the 5,400 people tested on Thursday and Friday, five people — or 0.1% — tested positive for the virus, the district reported. All infected with the virus were adults. The positive rate is significantly lower than the countywide rate. The countywide rate may be higher because symptomatic people seek out tests to confirm a coronavirus infection. The district, on the other hand, is testing people regardless of their symptoms or whether or not they have had known exposure to infected persons.
“No other school district in the country has put together an effort like this,” Beutner said.
LAUSD’s schools closed in March and transitioned to distance learning for all 700,000 students, with Beutner emphasizing that the district must avoid “schools turning into a petri dish” with the potential for students and staff contracting the virus and spreading it among their peers and family members. The district’s plan is to directly contact anyone who tests positive for the virus or may have come in contact with an individual in their school cohort. LAUSD also plans to inform the public about any occurrences at schools.
“Over the next several weeks, all staff and students will be provided with an initial, baseline test,” Beutner said. “We will also provide testing for household members of students or staff who test positive for the virus or those who show symptoms. … Once we’re closer to the time when students might return to classrooms, there will be a second round of baseline testing for all.”
Although the decline in new coronavirus cases in California has resulted in 25 counties — including San Diego and Orange counties — setting dates to reopen schools in the coming weeks, Beutner said Los Angeles County’s rate remains too high for students to return to the classroom anytime soon.
“Let’s be clear, it’s not an issue of desire, we all want students back in classrooms, but the decision must be based on science and it has to be right,” he said. “Careful and deliberate is just that. Don’t expect to see a decision about a return to school classrooms by students until the case rate in the area is significantly lower and remains there.”
County public health director Barbara Ferrer told local education officials last week that schools are unlikely to reopen in the county until at least November.
While distance learning continues with mostly virtual instruction — as well as some one-on-one tutoring and on-campus childcare for roughly 3,000 children of the district’s essential workers — district officials are preparing for students’ eventual return.
LAUSD Board of Education member Monica Carcia said the testing and contact tracing effort by the district “is modeling a new standard in creating conditions for learning in 2020.” She said, “We must be learners and leaders.”
Board member Nick Melvoin said he’s proud of the way LAUSD continues to innovate in the crisis.
District leaders emphasized that the effort is an enormous and unprecedented undertaking, and they anticipate there will be challenges.
Until students are able to return, Beutner said he remains grateful for the teachers and staff who are continuing to increase student engagement online and adapt to virtual classrooms. The district is reporting that 98% of students are now connected with their schools.
“I want to give a special shout-out to classroom teachers who, in addition to planning lessons, teaching Zoom classes and providing support to students throughout the crisis, have taken on the task of helping students navigate technology issues, power outages and the like, all with a smile,” he said. “Thank you for your commitment to students.”
City News Service and Patch Staffer contributed to this report.