LOS ANGELES — As hundreds of thousands of kids return to class in the nation’s second-largest school district, they’re participating in what amounts to a massive public health experiment unfolding in real time: Every single student, teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles public schools must get tested for the coronavirus every single week — indefinitely.
Even the fully vaccinated are required to get tested. Those who test positive stay home for at least 10 days. And those who decline to get tested can’t come at all.
Along with multiple other protocols the Los Angeles Unified School District is implementing — including masking for all and mandatory vaccines for teachers and staff — it amounts to by far the most aggressive anti-coronavirus campaign undertaken or announced by a major school district in the United States. And it comes as classrooms nationwide struggle to return to in-person learning amid the delta variant surge, with some governors trying to block mask mandates even as outbreaks have shut down schools or delayed planned re-openings in Florida, Texas, Iowa and elsewhere.
In Los Angeles, by contrast, the vast majority of parents, teachers and students are embracing or at least tolerating the stringent measures the district has adopted, with fewer than 3 percent of the district’s 450,000 K-12 students opting for remote learning instead. And while it remains to be seen whether L.A.’s ambitious approach will prove successful in keeping the district’s approximately 1,000 schools open for the entirety of the school year, local leaders and public health experts say the district is raising the bar in a way that’s being watched closely and could influence educators nationwide.
“I think we’re setting the standard on reopening schools safely in 2021,” said Smita Malhotra, the district’s medical director. “What our district has done is really quite amazing.”
To pull off the daunting task of administering some 500,000 coronavirus tests weekly across the sprawling district, L.A. Unified has contracted with two medical companies that provide around 1,000 licensed health-care practitioners. These health workers travel from school to school with mobile units conducting and overseeing nasal-swab tests — the PCR tests that produce the most accurate results. The tests are flown twice-daily to a lab in Northern California that aims to turn around the results in 24 to 36 hours. The price tag is hefty for the chronically underfunded district: around $350 million. L.A. County is paying for about $80 million of that sum, and the district is trying to get the federal government to cover the rest.
School started Aug. 16 for students in L.A. Unified, and by the end of the second week the district was reporting nearly 3,000 active positive cases among students and others. The number was rising by the day, but only seven cases had been linked within a school setting, all at an elementary school in Hollywood that — like the rest of the district’s schools — remained open. Anyone testing positive was sent home to quarantine, and close contacts were identified and also required to quarantine unless they’re vaccinated and asymptomatic. Some students and parents reported long lines or other logistical problems that were preventing everyone from getting tested weekly as intended, which the district said individual schools should address. Experts say it will become clear within a few months whether the program is working as intended — and if it does, other districts should take note.
“If you can do it with half-a-million kids, teachers and staff in the district once a week, it just takes away the excuse for others that ‘it’s too big, too complex, we can’t do it,’ ” said Andrew Sweet, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s COVID-19 response initiative. “It’s almost like an education Marshall Plan for a specific district.”
L.A. Unified’s approach largely aligns with what a number of public health experts have been recommending for months, but goes significantly beyond what other major districts are planning. New York City is requiring vaccinations for school staff, and both New York City and Chicago will be conducting screening tests for a portion of the student body, but not weekly for everyone. Baltimore has announced weekly tests for high school students, but vaccinated students are exempted and lower grades are being tested using a pooled model in which results are produced for a classroom or group of students, not individually.
In the immediate D.C. region, some districts and charter schools plan to test students and staff weekly, including using the pooled testing model.
One much smaller district in Southern California — Culver City — has gone further than L.A. Unified, announcing a vaccine mandate for all eligible students.
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said he would like to see all districts follow Culver City’s lead, something that L.A. Unified is not yet contemplating, according to Malhotra. But Thurmond heaped praise on the many steps L.A. Unified is taking to combat the virus.
“I see our largest district in the state, second in the country, taking the kinds of precautions that make sense for the highest results that you could hope for in terms of keeping everyone safe,” Thurmond said.
On the other end of the spectrum are the fights taking place in Florida and Texas, both led by Republican governors who are attempting to ban school districts from issuing mask mandates. In both states, the governors have lost court fights over the issue even as coronavirus outbreaks and school closures pop up all over.
For some in California, which has been aggressive overall in its response to the coronavirus, the outbreaks happening now in schools in other states stand as evidence that L.A. Unified is on the right track.
“The efforts we can take and the money we’re spending are well worth it if we can keep our students in school in a safe environment,” said Robert J. Kim-Farley, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
Kim-Farley and others cautioned that no matter what there are almost certain to be multiple outbreaks in L.A. Unified, given the size of the district and the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. The hope is that the measures the district is taking will contain any outbreak and limit the number of kids forced into quarantine.
For some students and parents in Los Angeles, the weekly testing mandate is a welcome relief, providing a comfort level and confidence that schools will stay open after a year-and-a-half when kids were mostly stuck at home navigating remote learning. L.A. Unified’s school body is majority Latino, with many students from lower-income families. Parents need their kids in school so they can go to work. The kids themselves are happy to be back at school with their friends, and some say it’s no more than a minor inconvenience to get pulled out of class to take a quick coronavirus test.
The weekly tests haven’t rolled out without some controversy and questions from parents, some of whom have complained about a lack of transparency by district officials. The district reports positive tests publicly, but initially did so only for individual schools, without aggregating the figures. A local school advocacy group called Parents Supporting Teachers took it upon themselves to create an Excel spreadsheet laying out the figures, while criticizing the district for not doing it themselves.
One of the leaders of Parents Supporting Teachers, Jenna Schwartz, also questioned shifting quarantine protocols from the district and called for a vaccine mandate for all eligible students.
“I think that LAUSD has some of the best safety measures in place of any district in the country, I really do,” said Schwartz, who has two middle school students. “However that doesn’t mean that that’s enough … when it’s your own children you can see what still needs to happen.”
One of Schwartz’s own kids, a sixth-grader named Oliver who attends Walter Reed Middle School, was told to quarantine toward the end of the second week of school after being in proximity to a student who had tested positive. Oliver and the rest of Schwartz’s family ultimately tested negative, and Oliver said he was happy with the way his school handled the situation.
“I feel like my school did a really good job controlling it and I think the overall process was good,” Oliver said. He said he had to wait for 45 minutes in a hot quarantine tent after being called out of class, but praised school staff for bringing him ice water.
Elise Furlan, a scientist with children in L.A. Unified elementary and middle schools, questioned whether weekly tests would disrupt learning and amount to overkill, since it’s impossible to eliminate all risk or catch every infection immediately.
Still, “I think for kids it’s so important to be around other kids, so if they have to wear masks, if they have to test weekly, it’s OK with them,” Furlan said.
Furlan’s fourth-grade daughter, Julianne, said the testing did give her a feeling of safety, although “It’s kind of like annoying because you have to do it every week.” She also said that the tests take “a long time,” defining this as “about 15 minutes.”
“I have to say I’m so happy to be part of the school district right now,” said Andrea Richards, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at a public school in the Silver Lake neighborhood. “I can send my kid to school every morning and feel good about it.”