About a third of Los Angeles Uniform’s students — about 130,000 — were absent from school during the first days after winter break, leading to another chapter of pandemic disruption in the nation’s second-largest school system.
In addition, teacher and staff absenteeism remained high, so office managers and substitute teachers were forced into staff ranks. All schools remained open for in-person learning this week. Incoming Supt. Alberto Carvalho said Friday that the district will continue to send a message to parents that Los Angeles schools are safe.
“They are safe places because of the precautions that are in place here,” Carvalho said, during a ceremony to welcome him at Elysian Heights Primary Magnet School in Echo Park. “Parents have to understand that, they have to bring their kids to school.”
About half of student absences are accounted for by those who test positive for coronavirus in the week before the start of term. Others may have tested positive or had symptoms but the information has not been uploaded to the area’s health screening system. There was no estimate of the number of families choosing to keep students at home out of caution as case numbers remain at record rates due to the Omicron variable.
The problems facing Los Angeles amid rising coronavirus infection rates are also affecting Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the area he is leaving, Carvalho said, causing high student absenteeism and putting pressure on an already tight job market for teachers and other school staff.
School Board Chair Kelly Gones said she understands the fear among many parents who are unwilling to return their children to in-person learning due to the rising number of coronavirus cases.
“Yes, our positivity rates are higher for the start of the spring semester, but we see this trend in a positive direction,” Jones said, noting a drop in LA standardized student testing positive this week.
On Tuesday, when the campus reopened, 17% of students and 15% of Los Angeles staff tested positive for the coronavirus, said the neighborhood. On Thursday, 15.6% of students tested positive, while 13.3% of staff tested positive – still nearly 10 times as many cases before the winter break. The county operates the largest school coronavirus testing program in the country, with more than 500,000 mandatory tests administered each week to all students and staff.
Despite the explosion in cases, fewer students who come into contact with an infected person are likely to be sent home to quarantine than fall under revised district policies moving toward a “survival test” approach.
Students may stay in school if exposure occurs at school while students are being supervised. The school must also be able to verify that both an infected person and a close contact were properly wearing masks. And exposure at school must occur without an outbreak of active infection – three or more cases believed to have been transmitted at school within a 14-day period.
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There is widespread confusion about who needs to stay at home and for how long – because the rules are complex and constantly changing. The state released updated guidelines this week — and as of Thursday, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said her department needs more time to analyze the changes. LA Unified released the rules to officials on January 7 and brought in the revised rules that went into effect Friday, one week later.
One change in state guidelines Simplifies how schools deal with potential contacts with infected people.
Rather than investigating each case and identifying close contacts, schools can instead send a communication to all potentially affected people. For example, if a 10th grader goes to school with an infection, everyone in that student’s classes and activities will be notified. But no one else will be automatically sent home unless they show symptoms. Those potentially affected should be tested “within three to five days” after last exposure, according to the state.
Carvalho said data trends showing that the Omicron increase is likely to subside in the coming weeks will bring more stability among staff and student attendance. He cautioned against moving too quickly to relax safety protocols in schools, saying he is “concerned about the fact that once conditions improve a little bit, we drop our guard, go back to where we used to be.”
“We cannot allow that to happen,” he said. “The viability of schools is open to the test.”
Carvalho reiterated his support for the district’s efforts to keep schools open for personal learning, saying the council had “done everything right in terms of safeguards for the benefit of the students”.
Carvalho did not specify when he would officially take over the supervisor position. He said he will move to Los Angeles sometime in early to mid-February to provide transition time for the Florida School District where he has led as a supervisor for 13 years.