30% of students absent as classes resume for LAUSD

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  • LAUSD’s Gulf Avenue STEAM School & Magnet Center in Wilmington in the early morning Jan. 11, 2021 before students returned to campus after holiday break amid the omicron coronavirus surge. (Photo by Lisa Jacobs)

  • A Gulf Avenue STEAM School & Magnet Center student squeezes out hand sanitizer on Jan. 11, 2021, the first day of school for LAUSD students following the holiday break and the omicron coronavirus surge. (Photo by Lisa Jacobs)

  • Mayra Peralta chats with Gulf Avenue STEAM School & Magnet Center Principal Jose Soto on Jan. 11, 2021, the first day of school as LAUSD students returned to campus following winter break amid the omicron coronavirus surge. (Photo by Lisa Jacobs)

  • Mayra Peralta walks away from Gulf Avenue STEAM School & Magnet Center in Wilmington on Jan. 11, 2021 with her son Christopher in tow. It was the first day back on campus after the holiday break for Los Angeles Unified School District. Peralta had tried uploading her son’s COVID-19 test results per LAUSD requirements, but the system had trouble reading it. She was going home to try again. (Photo by Lisa Jacobs)

Even as hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles Unified students and staff members returned to campus Tuesday, Jan. 11, for the first time since winter break, tens of thousands stayed home, having tested positive for the coronavirus.

L.A. Unified had identified 78,074 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff since baseline testing began last week, with 88% of students and 91.3% of employees having submitted their results, the district said Tuesday. The test-positivity rate was 17% among students and 15% among employees.

Thirty percent of students were absent from school on the first day of the new semester, according to preliminary data that could change by the time final attendance reports are processed. It’s possible that some students were absent for reasons not related to the coronavirus.

At the same time, about 2,000 employees in teaching positions were out and 262 school bus routes were covered by other drivers, supervisors and trainers, the district reported.

Principal Jose Soto is on hand at Gulf Avenue Elementary School in Wilmington on Tuesday, Jan. 11, as LAUSD officials check COVID testing status for all students entering campus. Photo: Lisa Jacobs, SCNG 

And much like the first day of fall semester, Day 1 of second semester saw its share of problems with the district’s Daily Pass, a web application that students and staff must sign onto to upload their COVID-19 test results and to answer questions about their health before being admitted onto campuses.

With so many people attempting to log on at the same time, the system became overwhelmed and slowed down. A number of parents and students said they weren’t able to log on.

Interim Superintendent Megan Reilly acknowledged the issues with the Daily Pass during a news conference.

“We thought we might have something like this occur, and we apologize for that,” she said, adding that schools can print out a daily list of students with permission to be on campus that they can check off manually when the system is down.

While there were issues with the Daily Pass, there were also schools that managed to keep the lines moving. And, district officials maintained that LAUSD’s vaccine and testing mandates, as well as on-campus safeguards, will keep students and staff safe, and that, with contingency plans in place to address staffing shortages, the district expects to remain open amid the coronavirus surge.

“This is our third semester under this new normal. We know how to handle this,” Reilly said.

Tuesday morning, students and their parents lined up outside Gulf Avenue Elementary, waiting for officials to check their vaccination status; LAUSD administrators were on hand  to check 140 of its 660 students who had yet to upload COVID testing results to the district’s testing portal. Some parents said they’d encountered technical difficulties with the portal, however.

Similar scenes were expected at campuses around the district. At about 8:15 a.m. the lines were cleared at Gulf Avenue, with classes starting about 10 minutes late.

“I thought we were going to be out here until 9,” said Principal Jose Soto as he checked in a late-comer whose dad dropped him off at 8:32 a.m.. “We did good.”

Soto said the vaccines have been a tough sell at his school — only 11% of students had gotten their shots as of last week. But he said he’s seen an uptick in people coming to vaccine clinics on campus, despite the general resistance.

Mayra Peralta sent her son Christopher scurrying across the vast hard-topped playground to catch up to his first-grade classmates.

“Keep your mask up!,” she yelled after him. “And, don’t touch your face!”

Peralta said she’s been hyper-vigilant about health protocols at home with Christopher and his older, high school aged siblings. She got her children shots and boosters as soon as vaccines were available in October, she said.

In-person school, said Peralta, is crucial and she said Christopher couldn’t wait to get back.

“I think kids need to get out of the house and go to school,” Peralta said. “I’m glad they’re doing all this,” she added of the LAUSD testing requirements.

Mom Claudia Munoz said she’s happy the district is now offering testing as it’s the one time per week she knows her kids will get tested.

“It’s spreading a lot,” said Munoz of the highly transmissible omicron variant, “and the numbers are high.” Munoz has two students at Gulf Avenue — a fourth grader who is in-person and a third grader who is still doing online school because of medical reasons.

“It’s a good thing that we’re all vaccinated,” Munoz said.

The lines were short and moved quickly by 7:45 a.m. at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, even when one student told a staff member that the Daily Pass wasn’t working on his phone. The staff member waved the student over to help get him checked in while another woman continued checking in students who already had uploaded their information to the Daily Pass.

Apprehension persists

When students left school on the last day of fall semester on Dec. 17, the county reported 3,360 new coronavirus cases that day.

On Tuesday, the county reported 34,827 new cases, more than 10 times what that number was just 3½ weeks ago.

The relentless surge in coronavirus cases has led to high levels of anxiety for many students, parents and educators.

But officials in the nation’s second-largest district, which never had to close a school due to a viral outbreak last semester, have pledged to continue doing their best to keep campuses safe and open — even if it means longer-than-usual lines to get students through health screenings.

“The morale is high,” said Soto at Gulf Avenue Elementary of his teachers and staff. “They’re excited to come back but there’s also this sense of anxiousness.”

Sandra Diaz, who dropped off her 13-year-old daughter at Olive Vista Middle School, admitted that the surge in cases has given her some anxiety about sending her only child back to school. At the same time, her daughter prefers learning in person, and the family has taken measures to best protect themselves, she noted.

“I’m scared for the pandemic and for my family, but I have my booster shot, and my daughter got her two (initial) shots already,” Diaz said.

In a video message Monday evening, Reilly acknowledged the fears that many parents and educators may be feeling but also sought to assuage their concerns by highlighting safety protocols that are in place.

“We know there is apprehension. And we’ve added the extra layers of protection for the return to school,” she said.

She also acknowledged Tuesday that families may experience delays with school transportation. If there is a shortage of bus drivers, some drivers will be asked to circle back along their route and do a second round of pick-ups, she said.

 

  • Students are greeted by “Rampage” the LA Rams mascot at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, CA Tuesday, January 11, 2021. Tuesday was the first day back to school for LAUSD after the winter break. Los Angeles County is currently recording a record number of COVID cases with the Omicron variant. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Students back in class and socially distanced at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, CA Tuesday, January 11, 2021. Tuesday was the first day back to school for LAUSD after the winter break. Los Angeles County is currently recording a record number of COVID cases with the Omicron variant. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Students back in class and socially distanced at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, CA Tuesday, January 11, 2021. Tuesday was the first day back to school for LAUSD after the winter break. Los Angeles County is currently recording a record number of COVID cases with the Omicron variant. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Balloons are placed at the entrance to Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, CA Tuesday, January 11, 2021. Tuesday was the first day back to school for LAUSD after the winter break. Los Angeles County is currently recording a record number of COVID cases with the Omicron variant. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Students work on an outdoor project at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, CA Tuesday, January 11, 2021. Tuesday was the first day back to school for LAUSD after the winter break. Los Angeles County is currently recording a record number of COVID cases with the Omicron variant. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Students show a phone pass to enter Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, CA Tuesday, January 11, 2021. Tuesday was the first day back to school for LAUSD after the winter break. Los Angeles County is currently recording a record number of COVID cases with the Omicron variant. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

 

 

District officials say they have contingency plans in place to deal with staffing shortages, including the ability to deploy some 4,000 employees who work in the central office or local district offices to school sites to fill in for workers who may be out. On Tuesday, more than 1,800 employees who typically don’t work at school sites fanned out to assist at campuses, Reilly said.

The number of district employees who may be out at any given time is not the only unknown factor as second semester gets underway. It remains to be seen how many families may be too nervous to send their children back to campus.

When New York City schools – the nation’s largest K-12 system – reopened on Jan. 3, about one-third of parents kept their children home on the first day of classes. At the time, the city had a seven-day average test-positivity rate of about 22%, according to The New York Times. That’s roughly the same rate that L.A. County is currently experiencing.

Students greet each other after arrival at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, CA Tuesday, January 11, 2021. Tuesday was the first day back to school for LAUSD after the winter break. Los Angeles County is currently recording a record number of COVID cases with the Omicron variant. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) 

But some say the difference between L.A. Unified and other districts that have postponed the reopening of schools or reverted to remote instruction stems from the fact that LAUSD has required mandatory baseline COVID-19 testing and will continue to test all students and staff on campuses, regardless of vaccination status, throughout this month, and implemented other safety measures to reduce the risk of viral spread in schools.

“Our school district is in a better position than most others in the country because of the safety infrastructure that educators and families fought for and won during this pandemic,” United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement last week, noting that LAUSD is one of a handful of districts in the country with a regular COVID-19 testing program and Daily Pass system to track test results and provide health screenings.

And in an email to its members over the weekend, UTLA said it will “demand” that weekly coronavirus testing for all continue beyond January “if cases continue to surge.”

As a sign of how schools are stepping up measures to keep students and staff safe amid the latest surge, LAUSD employees who returned to campus were instructed to wear a surgical-grade or higher-quality mask, as required by the county.

Additionally, outdoor masking will continue, in accordance with recently updated county guidelines. The district had previously announced plans to loosen some restrictions, including allowing schools with at least an 85% student vaccination rate to shed the outdoor mask mandate, but the omicron variant prompted the county to issue its own outdoor masking mandate for schools.

District officials have said they’ll continue to monitor local coronavirus case rates and to evaluate LAUSD’s health-and-safety protocols as the semester progresses.

At Gulf Avenue school, Soto said educators have learned a lot from the experiences of 2020 with online only learning. And it wasn’t only learning about health protocols.

Teachers became more digitally proficient, said Soto, and have now taken technology into the classrooms. And being back in person, he said, is much preferred over the online environment where interactions are transactional.

Students back in class and socially distanced at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, CA Tuesday, January 11, 2021. Tuesday was the first day back to school for LAUSD after the winter break. Los Angeles County is currently recording a record number of COVID cases with the Omicron variant. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) 

“In the classroom, we’re able to have discourse with the students,” Soto said. “And students are able to share with each other and learn from each other.”

But, new technology isn’t foolproof.

Meanwhile, officials are hoping the hiccups experienced Tuesday will get resolved quickly.

As the last students crossed Gulf Avenue campus Tuesday morning, Soto had to call Christopher Peralta back. Something went awry with reading his test results.

The eager first-grader waved vigorously at his classmates as he was escorted across the blacktop, taking baby steps to prolong the walk back to his mom.

Mom Mayra said she’d just have to go home and try uploading again.

“Don’t worry, honey,” Mayra said to Christopher. “You’ll be back tomorrow.”

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