How Los Angeles became the national leader for keeping schools open

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LOS ANGELES — If you’re the kind of parent who cares about sending your kids to school in person, there was no worse place to be last school year than Los Angeles.

And there’s probably no better place to be today.

During the first week back from this year’s Christmas break, as the hypertransmissible Omicron variant was peaking nationwide, more than 7 percent of public schools in the U.S. (7,164 schools in total) had to shut down or go virtual because so many students and staff were sick.

All told, a staggering 25 percent of Americans reported that COVID closed schools in their community in December or January, according to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

A locked gate outside a school.
A locked gate outside a school in Newark, N.J., on Jan. 4 after the city ordered students to return to remote instruction due to the spread of COVID-19. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The problem is nothing new. During last summer’s Delta wave, tens of thousands of students and staff in hot spots such as Florida, Texas and Tennessee were sent home to quarantine, and more than 2,200 schools nationwide had to cancel in-person instruction. By October, nearly 1 in 4 parents (23 percent) were reporting that Delta had forced their own kids to miss class.

Yet not one of the more than 1,000 schools in America’s second-largest public school system — the vast, 640,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — had to shutter during either surge.

The reason, experts say, is simple: LAUSD has done more than any other district in the country to keep kids in class by keeping COVID out.

As an LAUSD parent, I’ve seen it firsthand.

“L.A. Unified has led with some of the highest safety measures in the nation — and that is our required masking, both indoors and outdoors; our weekly testing of all of our students and staff regardless of vaccination status; and our very high vaccination rates,” LAUSD medical director Dr. Smita Malhotra recently explained, adding that 100 percent of staff and 90 percent of students 12 and older are now inoculated.

Eighth-grade students Sammy Romano and Kenneth Sandoval.
Eighth graders Sammy Romano, left, and Kenneth Sandoval participate in an outdoor activity in their robotics class at Olive Vista Middle School in Los Angeles. (Caroline Brehman/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The district’s ahead-of-the-curve efforts continued this week with the announcement that all students and staff would be required to upgrade from cloth masks to surgical ones (or better) in order to further stem in-school transmission — and that because of this extra protection, anyone exposed to the virus on campus no longer has to automatically quarantine at home.

“We’ve been able to keep our school environments very controlled and safe,” Malhotra said. “And it shows in our positivity rates” — which now stand at 6.5 percent, less than half the countywide number.

Likewise, California as a whole accounted for just 0.3 percent of the nation’s school closures by the start of winter break, despite educating 12 percent of the nation’s students. According to Dennis Roche of the statistics firm Burbio, which tracks pandemic school trends, “It is clear from our maps, both the January-only and cumulative maps on our tracker page, that California has had less disruptions than most other states.”

School closures and reopenings have triggered political conflict since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But by the time lifesaving vaccines became widely available last spring, most Americans had come to the conclusion, regardless of their politics, that kids need to be in school, in person, as much as possible. So the conversation shifted.

Before, the question was whether schools could safely reopen at all. Now the question is how to keep them safely open even when cases spike in the surrounding community.

LAUSD has done just that. Many other districts haven’t.

Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, at podium, announces new legislation.
Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento announces the Keep Schools Open and Safe Act on Monday at Arleta High School in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

While Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis was prohibiting local districts from mandating masks in schools — even as statewide COVID rates soared higher there than anywhere else in the world, forcing at least 10 Florida school districts to shut down in late August and early September — LAUSD was requiring them on every campus. (A new University of Michigan study found that the infection rate in schools that require masks was 62 percent lower than in schools that don’t.)

While red states such as Ohio — which saw more than 200 of its schools shut down this month — were banning COVID vaccine requirements in schools, LAUSD implemented one of the nation’s first districtwide vaccine mandates for all teachers and staff and the very first major-school-district vaccine mandate for all students 12 and older.

While districts from Detroit to Milwaukee to Cleveland to Newark, N.J., struggled to secure and administer tests during the Omicron surge — and then canceled or delayed class as a result — LAUSD became the only major school system in the nation to routinely test every single student and staffer on campus every single week.

While officials in Arizona, Iowa and elsewhere spent part of their share of $190 billion in federal COVID relief on undermining local mask requirements and upgrading their sports facilities — and were then forced to shutter schools, call in the National Guard or appeal to parents to fill in when scores of teachers called in sick with Omicron — LAUSD installed MERV-13 air filters across 80 million square feet of school buildings and shored up its pool of 3,500 substitutes.

And while teachers’ unions in Chicago and Oakland walked out over Omicron safety shortfalls, disrupting instruction, no such qualms were raised in Los Angeles.

Megan Reilly, interim superintendent of schools for LAUSD.
Megan Reilly, right, LAUSD’s interim superintendent of schools, checks in with her health pass at Olive Vista Middle School on Jan. 11. (David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

From my perspective as a parent who endured the longest school closure of 2020-2021, it’s been a remarkable turnaround — and one that could potentially serve as a model for the nation as we transition to a new and hopefully less disruptive phase of the pandemic.

Last year, my daughter, who was 5 then and has since turned 6, spent nearly all of kindergarten — her introduction to LAUSD — “learning remotely.” As a family, we have every imaginable advantage, and my daughter, like most kids, proved to be more adaptable than the vast majority of adults. Her saintly teacher somehow taught her how to read over Zoom.

Yet the two of them didn’t get to meet in person until regular classes finally resumed on a half-day schedule in April 2021 — more than a year after the start of the U.S. pandemic, and months after students in other states and cities had already returned for full-time instruction.

Ultimately, my daughter and her first real teacher spent just eight weeks in the same classroom before the end of the school year. This still makes me sad — and again, most LAUSD families had it a lot harder than we did.

The causes of LAUSD’s long delay were complex: the nation’s worst holiday-season surge; a strong teachers’ union that wanted to get its members vaccinated before in-person instruction resumed; and districtwide surveys showing that two-thirds of LAUSD households — mainly lower-income Angelenos of color who were disproportionately harmed by the pandemic — simply did not feel safe sending their children back to school yet.

In short, reopening schools in California wasn’t the cinch that certain politicians and pundits now like to claim it should have been. It was a frustrating systemic snarl, with no clear-cut villains. California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, for instance, started pushing schools to reopen months earlier, in the fall of 2020 — even though he is precisely the kind of cautious progressive that Republicans like DeSantis love to demonize.

Gov. Gavin Newsom sitting with students in a classroom.
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to seventh graders at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco in October 2021. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Regardless, the unfortunate reality was that California wound up with a lower average level of in-person instruction than any other state during the 2020-21 school year, according to Burbio — and still ranked dead last when the year ended in June.

But by the time LAUSD finally reopened in the fall of 2021 for full-time, in-person instruction, the superintendent and school board had put in place more COVID safeguards than any other district in the country.

So far, this entire school year — which has encompassed two big COVID waves — has been disruption-free. Each day, my wife completes my daughter’s “Daily Pass” — a quick symptom check — on her phone; a school employee scans the resulting QR code on my phone when I drop my daughter off. If she forgets her mask, there are plenty at the door. On Fridays, a mobile unit tests the whole school, and those results automatically appear in the Daily Pass system and on an anonymized dashboard that records active cases, in-school transmission and positivity rates for every school in the district. Parents can upload at-home test results as well.

During Delta, very few kids or staffers at my daughter’s school caught COVID; almost no one had to be quarantined. That changed with Omicron. On the day LAUSD students left school for Christmas break — Dec. 17, 2021 — L.A. County reported 3,360 new coronavirus cases. By the time they returned, that number had multiplied tenfold, to 35,244 new cases — more than double last winter’s peak.

In response, LAUSD made on-site PCR testing and rapid “baseline” tests available to every student in the district before they returned to school, as opposed to forcing them to fend for themselves during a mass testing shortage or only testing a small sample of the community, like nearly every other district in the country.

People lining up on the stairs at a school in Los Angeles.
People line up for COVID-19 screening at a public school in Los Angeles on Jan. 5. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Having that infrastructure in place before the surge turned out to be a huge advantage. The first round of baseline tests — all 547,466 of them — preemptively caught 80,424 COVID cases, including 68,560 cases among LAUSD staff and students, resulting in a test positivity rate of 14.6 percent. None of those individuals were allowed to return to school for at least five days.

At my daughter’s elementary school, 10 kids and five staffers tested positive before class resumed — the most ever. The school then gave everyone their usual weekly PCR test the first day back from break. Another nine people tested positive, raising the school’s positivity rate to about 6 percent, an all-time high.

At first we were concerned that my daughter would be sent home; one of the kids who tested positive on the first day back was in her class, sitting one table away. But LAUSD’s new “modified quarantine” policy said that because she and her classmates were all masked, they could remain in school as long as they didn’t develop symptoms and tested negative on day five.

Ultimately, neither my daughter nor any of her other classmates caught COVID — and her school still hasn’t recorded a single case of on-campus transmission. Ever. Today, the school’s positivity rate is 0.89 percent, or more than 15 times lower than L.A. County as a whole. I’m convinced that universal testing, universal masking, upgraded ventilation and high vaccination rates — along with a sensible quarantine policy — are what kept my daughter in school during America’s biggest surge yet.

In contrast, Omicron cases among elementary-age children in the U.K. — where most schools do not mask children, and where few kids under 12 are vaccinated — have continued to rise this month even as they have fallen among all other age groups. As a result, 374,000 British children with confirmed or suspected infections missed school on Jan. 20 alone. On Wednesday, modelers at the country’s Office of National Statistics estimated that 11.8 percent of younger kids in the U.K. currently have COVID.

A student at Park Lane Academy in England.
A student at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, England, receives a COVID-19 test on Jan. 4. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

“I wish I could say I was astonished,” tweeted Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage, “but [this is to be] expected if you open schools with little mitigation.”

Does LAUSD’s success mean that all of its pandemic safety measures should continue indefinitely? Of course not. Districtwide testing costs $5 million a week. Omicron is less severe than prior variants. Nearly every American has been either vaccinated or exposed by now. And children are largely shielded from the virus’s worst effects.

My daughter doesn’t mind wearing a face covering. For the moment, the miniature surgical mask she slips on every morning further reduces the chances that she will catch or spread COVID in class, thereby making it as safe as possible for her remain in school even after she’s been exposed. The masks disrupt her life less than a classroom COVID outbreak would.

But my hope is that as Omicron cases continue to plummet and such exposures become less common, she and her friends will be able to show their faces again, both indoors and outdoors (where masking restrictions have always been overkill). LAUSD needs an off-ramp for masking.

Still, the virus will continue to circulate, and new variants may spark new surges. Before that happens, other districts would be wise to follow in LAUSD’s footsteps — perhaps by putting in place similar universal testing and masking protocols that can toggle on and off in response to the trajectory of the virus.

“We can’t predict what SARS-CoV2 will do, but we can prepare,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, tweeted earlier this week. “With tests and mask[s] and therapeutics and a well-vaccinated population, we’ll manage future surges without large disruptions to our lives or livelihoods.”

Going forward, the key to keeping schools open will be minimizing the amount of COVID that spreads from the community to the classroom. The math is — and will likely continue to be — unambiguous: The fewer students and teachers get sick, the fewer schools will have to close.

How are vaccination rates affecting the latest COVID surge? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

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