At the first sign of sniffling or stormy weather ahead, Lourdes Lopez keeps her 10-year-old daughter Alison home from school.
Alison has Down syndrome and is more vulnerable to illness. A cold can be a great hardship, Lopez said, not just for her daughter, but for her entire family who live in a crowded apartment in South Los Angeles.
Lopez is once again experiencing a terrible sense of déjà vu this winter. She doesn’t feel her daughter is safe at school, especially since masks are optional and there is no universal COVID-19 test in Los Angeles schools. Alison missed enough days that school officials met with Lopez to discuss the absences.
“I know if she misses class, she’ll fall behind,” she said. But Lopez can’t justify the risk to her daughter’s health. “I told them that day to help too.”
Lopez’s concerns typify the voices of many Los Angeles parents who are navigating another troubling winter of health concerns. Not only do they remain deeply concerned about the ongoing outbreaks of COVID schools, but rampant flu cases and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, have added to their fears. Fear has increased among many low-income or multi-family households as they return from the winter break as a contagious virus entering their homes threatens not only their child’s health, but also their financial stability and well-being.
Lopez and a group of Latino parents recently met on Zoom to raise concerns and discuss an action plan. The parents drafted demands to send to the superintendent and school administrators, including a plea for mandatory masking by at least January. The group also asked the district to reinstate weekly coronavirus testing on campus.
“As parents advocating for a high-quality, equitable public education and safe school campuses, we are concerned about returning to school without clear preventive health protocols from LA Unified to protect our children from contracting a respiratory virus infection,” the group wrote. , made up of largely Hispanic parents from East and South Los Angeles.
A week into the new semester, the group, Our Voice: Communities for Quality Education, has yet to receive a direct response from the district. But at a Jan. 9 press conference, Supt. Alberto Carvalho took on what he called “disinformation, disinformation, confusion and unfounded fear”.
He said flu and RSV are currently greater threats to children than COVID, adding: “Having said that, prevention is the best medicine. So mask. We recommend the face masks of students and staff.” He also blamed misinformation for lowering vaccination rates for COVID and other diseases: “Now is the time to get yourself and your children vaccinated. It is the best prevention measure.”
Carvalho’s approach has been praised by another contingent of parents who oppose mandatory masks in schools.
But members of the Our Voice group say his push for voluntary action marginalizes their concerns.
The district’s current approach to COVID is reflected in the county health department guidance. Schools are no longer reporting individual COVID-19 cases, but are still required to report clusters of three or more possibly related cases, said LA County public health director Barbara Ferrer. Reliability may be compromised by inconsistent testing and reporting, and the reality that many children have no or mild symptoms.
Still, there was a gradual rise in reported clusters during the fall and a sharp spike in December — consistent with previous increases following family gatherings over Thanksgiving. For example, in the first week of October, there were 27 clusters in schools and youth programs across the country. The figure was 64 the week before Thanksgiving and 226 the last full week before winter break.
While the precise number of cases and clusters are likely underreported, the spike itself is telling, Ferrer said.
LA Unified is still collecting data on COVID infections – and has a policy asking parents and employees to upload positive test results to a tracking system, but compliance is optional. County officials have the same tracking problem: testing is not widespread and COVID cases are not necessarily reported.
Carvalho’s reliance on optional masking brings Los Angeles Unified into line with most school systems. Earlier in the pandemic, the district enforced strict testing rules longer than most school systems, imposed a vaccine mandate on employees and tried unsuccessfully to require students to get vaccines, drawing some vocal critics.
“The mask mandates and the testing were a complete waste of our tax dollars,” says parent Jenny Zepp, a Westside parent. “So much learning, mental/physical/emotional health was lost.”
“COVID now needs to be treated like any other virus,” says ward parent Carrie Kangro. “I don’t think we should even test for it anymore. If you are sick, stay home. If not, continue. And get vaccinated.”
Her opinion was not far from that of Dr. Smita Malhotra, medical director of LA Unified.
“Thanks to science, thanks to vaccines, thanks to therapies,” Malhotra said at the press conference, “we are now in a place where COVID-19 is…similar to…RSV and flu. And so, as we’ve entered this new season of upper respiratory illness, we’re treating this as if we’ve covered all respiratory viruses.
Malhotra, who also defended the district’s previous approach as correct for the time, strongly pushed for masking, but without a mandate.
A local charter school group goes against the grain. KIPP SoCal returned to mandatory masking on its 24 local campuses in early December. KIPP schools are located in low-income minority communities that have been hit particularly hard by COVID.
LAUSD parents living in vulnerable communities say the district should do as KIPP did.
“The pandemic is not over yet,” Lopez said. “More viruses are coming very strong.”
Lopez said she thinks mandatory masking would be an easy way to protect the most vulnerable.
In her community, MLK Community Hospital is struggling against the triple epidemic of flu, RSV and COVID-19.
Lopez, 39, lives in a two-bedroom apartment that her family shares with her brother-in-law. She lives with her husband and three children in one of the bedrooms. When her husband, who has diabetes, gets sick and can’t go to work, he doesn’t get paid and bills don’t get paid, she said.
Lopez’s experience is common in low-income communities and reflects the outrageous impact of severe illness.
Since campuses generally reopened in the fall of 2021, voluntary mask-wearing has generally become more widespread in schools with more Latino and black students from low-income families enrolled, according to parents and teachers — and also based on visits to campuses. When COVID transmission is higher, these groups continue to experience worse health outcomes, Ferrer said.
Maria Baños, 43, lives in a small one-bedroom apartment in South LA with her husband and four children.
“I live in a vulnerable community,” Baños said. “I have seen many cases around me and personally I have had COVID-19 three times. And my wish is that my children don’t go through that. Unfortunately, even when we take precautions… cases happen daily. If COVID-19 is in the community, it’s in the schools.”
Baños said she worries about how much class time her children miss because they get sick.
She sends her children to school healthy and they seem to be coming back feverish, Baños said. The teachers sometimes send them home sick and tell her not to worry; they will help them get back on track. But she said that while school officials are pushing for a good turnout, she doesn’t feel her kids are getting much help.
“For me it is another pandemic, because we have one [the] Omicron [variant], the flu and RSV. I am afraid that my children will get one of those diseases and they will have to stay at home. Even if the school says they will help, the reality is if they fall behind, they fall behind.”
Absences remain a problem. As of November, LA Unified’s attendance rate is about 89%, below the pre-pandemic rate of 95% or better. Chronic absenteeism remains high: about two in five students miss 10% or more lessons.
“I don’t like to hide ugly truths,” Carvalho said at the press conference. “We have improved chronic absenteeism… That is not enough.”
Baños said the main thing she fears about getting sick is because, as an immigrant, she doesn’t know what would happen to her children if she can’t take care of them.
‘If I report to the hospital that I am ill, where would they take me? Who would take care of my children? That’s my fear,” she said.
Recently elected LA school board member Rocio Rivas, who represents East LA and parts of central LA, echoed Carvalho in urging parents to use free home coronavirus testing from LA Unified.
Rivas, a neighborhood parent, added that she plans to assess whether stricter measures may be necessary the next time students return from a holiday period.
“We need to be more proactive in taking preventive measures. As a parent, I share the legitimate concerns of other parents.”
“We have to be as diplomatic and democratic as possible,” Rivas said. “Everyone’s concerns are legitimate whether you want to wear a mask or not. Care is our social responsibility; we have to take care of each other.”