LA schools drop aggressive COVID-19 rules: No more testing for everyone and masks remain optional

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Los Angeles Unified school leaders on Tuesday officially stepped back from COVID-19 safety protocols that were among the most far-reaching in the country, opting instead to reflect current county requirements and align with most other school systems across the country. region, which is a reordering of priorities as the pandemic seeps into a third academic year.

What that means for students and parents is an ongoing postponement of LA Unified School District’s student vaccination mandate and voluntary masking in the nation’s second-largest school system. Weekly universal testing for coronavirus infections will also come to an end, and there will be no baseline test before the start of school on August 15.

Like many other school systems, LA Unified has moved to “response testing,” requiring COVID-19 testing for the sick, close contacts, or whenever there is a chance of an outbreak.

Supported Alberto Carvalho emphasizes that the district is not endangering safety and will continue to go to great lengths to keep schools safe at significant cost. But the tenor of the neighborhood report was strikingly different on Tuesday than the former Supt. Austin Beutner’s approach, which reflects the evolving phases of the pandemic at a time when fear of the virus is waning among many. Last week, Los Angeles County announced that after small improvements in the cases of coronavirus and hospitalizations in the region.

In the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, Beutner oversaw a nationally-leading mass-testing program. Beutner accused other officials of putting politics above security, and he refused to reopen campuses until every employee had a chance to get vaccinated. A mandate to vaccinate students and staff followed.

When Carvalho took over from an interim leader in February 2022, the district had already postponed his student mandate. Carvalho said the district would not preempt state-ordered vaccine mandates for students, leading to an indefinite hiatus.

At the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, Los Angeles County education leaders said they needed to assess how much they needed to shift to other priorities, including an intense focus on academic recovery. When asked about school safety, local inspectors often quickly switched from pandemic safety to safety assessments following the deadly mass shooting in May at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

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“Everyone is tired of dealing with COVID,” says Lynwood Unified Supt. Gudiel Crosthwaite. “But we also learned a lot and now have better tools and technology at our disposal.”

Most of the county’s 80 school systems appear to follow a course similar to LA Unified. Response testing appears to be the most common model, said Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s Public Health.

But there are variations. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified officials began deliberating Tuesday on how to approach testing. Culver City Unified will offer take-home tests for all students just before school starts, and then weekly on-site tests from week two onwards.

“The unique challenge of COVID is the chronic uncertainty,” said Toby Gilbert, a spokesperson for the Alhambra Unified School District, which had enough tests on hand for a month of weekly testing.

The rethink in LA Unified includes phasing out the Daily Pass system. To enter the school grounds last year, students had to be aware of the weekly COVID-19 tests and also had to confirm that students or their parents had no symptoms of illness.

The Daily Pass system will instead be used to upload positive test results or report symptoms, if necessary and on a voluntary basis.

LA Unified officials stressed that no one should go to school sick.

County guidelines require students and staff to isolate for at least five days if they test positive for a coronavirus infection — less than the mandatory 10 days or more at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. In addition, home quarantines for close contact — which also lasted up to 10 days — are no longer required for people who remain healthy and test negative.

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“We know COVID-19 is here to stay,” the district said in a letter posted Tuesday. “Because we have entered a new phase of this virus, where we have accessible home testing, vaccinations for COVID-19 and therapies available for treatment, Los Angeles Unified can quickly adapt to changing circumstances.”

Parents remain divided on the best way forward.

By Tuesday afternoon, nearly 6,000 parents, concerned about the risks of high transmission rates in the community, participated in a coordinated letter-writing campaign demanding that the school board be more assertive on safety issues. One of the parents was Alexis Rochlin, who has a son who attends second grade in the West Ward.

“While I think many of us would have hoped that COVID would be far behind us by now, unfortunately that is not the case, and we look forward to starting the school year without meaningful mitigation measures,” Rochlin wrote in an email to The times.

She and other like-minded parents want the school district to improve indoor air quality through increased focus on HVAC systems, high-quality HEPA filtration, and effective, inexpensive DIY filters. She would also like students to eat outside and the windows of school buses to remain open. In addition, parents would like officials to change their mind and conduct baseline tests before the start of the school year and expand peak and post-exposure testing for students and staff, while providing stationary testing sites within each of the more than 40 designated communities of schools.

“These sensible and cost-effective measures will prevent the spread of disease in our schools, reduce the time students and staff are sick, and improve fair access to clean air and testing,” Rochlin said.

Several parents echoed these concerns in public comments at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Carvalho stressed in an interview that he is just as concerned about safety as the parents who signed the letters. But campuses are reasonably safe, he says, based on the measures that are already in place, the relatively high vaccination rate among students and the mandatory vaccination mandate among employees.

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He added that he agrees that indoor air quality is important, but LA Unified has already installed high-performance filters in HVAC systems, replaced them regularly, and will continue to do so. These systems are set up to filter air 24 hours a day. Air quality spot tests indicate that these practices work, he said.

In the letter, the district also pointed to stricter cleaning and disinfection measures.

In the interview, the superintendent also defended the return of breakfast in the classroom. County health officials still strongly recommend masking indoors.

“Everything is a balance, right?” Carvalho said. “If we want a larger number of students to have breakfast, breakfast in a classroom makes sense.”

Reasonable safety would be ensured by following protocols, including social distancing “as far as possible” and personal hygiene.

“And really, the important thing is — if there’s a kid with symptoms, parents should keep them at home,” Carvalho said. “If we follow those guidelines, it should be fine. But there is also a lot of personal responsibility involved.”

The teachers’ union — which has consistently pushed for aggressive security measures — expressed concern about the district’s new direction.

“We believe the district should have maintained their testing program,” United Teachers Los Angeles said in a statement.

Many parents support Carvalho’s approach.

“No more masks and a normal school year is what I hope for and look forward to for my daughter,” said Erin Kyle, who just moved from Studio City to the Westside and has a daughter who is in eighth grade. “Yes, we’ve been vaxxed and stimulated and it’s time to get back to normal.”

“As a parent, I am encouraged by the new inspector,” said Hugo Schwyzer, a Mid-City resident with a daughter in eighth grade and a son in fifth. “At the moment both my children want to see old friends and buy new clothes. Fortunately, that ritual never changes.”

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