L.A. schools drop aggressive COVID-19 rules: No more testing for all and masks stay optional

Parents and children form lines to check for student names on a COVID health clearance list at an elementary school
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

COVID-19 safety measures will mirror county requirements, a step back from more aggressive protocols on testing, masking and vaccinations.

Los Angeles school leaders on Tuesday officially stepped back from COVID-19 safety protocols that were among the most far-reaching in the country, choosing instead to mirror current county requirements and operate in line with most other school districts.

What that means for students and parents is an end to weekly universal testing for coronavirus infections, no baseline testing before the Aug. 15 start of school, voluntary masking and a continued deferment of the district’s vaccination mandate for students in the nation’s second-largest school system.

In addition, the district’s Daily Pass system will ramp down from its prior use as a campus entry requirement that had to be inspected every day. Last year, under this system, to enter school grounds students had to be up to date on weekly COVID-19 testing and they or their parents also had to affirm that students had no symptoms of illness. The Daily Pass system will be used instead to upload positive test results or report symptoms on an as-needed and voluntary basis.

Like many other school systems, L.A. Unified has shifted to “response testing” — where testing is required for those who are sick, who are close contacts or when there is a potential for an outbreak.

L.A. Unified School District officials emphasized that no one should go to school sick.

“Perfect attendance is not as important as the safety, security and well-being of our students and our workforce,” L.A. Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho said in an appearance last week.

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

“We know that COVID-19 is here to stay,” the district said in a letter posted Tuesday. “As we have entered into a new phase of this virus where we have accessible at-home testing, vaccinations for COVID-19 and therapeutics available for treatment, Los Angeles Unified is able to nimbly adjust to changing conditions.”

Carvalho had previewed most of these policies at recent appearances. The district’s previous strict mask, vaccination and testing mandates had divided parents. That dynamic continues.

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 6,000 parents, concerned about risks posed by high levels of transmission in the community, had participated in a coordinated letter-writing campaign demanding that the school board engage more assertively on safety issues. Among the parents was Alexis Rochlin, who has a son entering second grade in the district’s West Area.

“Although I think many of us had hoped COVID would be far behind us by now, it’s unfortunately not, and we are looking at starting the school year with NO 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 more attention to HVAC systems, high-grade HEPA filtration and effective, low-cost DIY filters. She’d also like to see students eat meals outdoors and have school bus windows kept open. In addition, parents would like officials to change their minds and conduct baseline testing before the start of the school year and expand surge and post-exposure testing for student and staff, while providing stationary testing sites within each of more than 40 designated communities of schools.
“These commonsense and cost-effective measures will prevent the spread of illness in our schools, reduce the amount of time students and staff are out sick, and improve equitable access to clean air and testing,” Rocklin said.

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

Carvalho insisted in an interview that he is just as concerned about safety as the parents who’ve signed the letters. But campuses, he said, are reasonably safe based on measures already in place, the relatively high vaccination rates among students and the enforced vaccination mandate among employees.

He added that he agrees that indoor air quality is important, but that L.A. Unified already has installed high-quality filters in HVAC systems, changed them regularly and will continue to do so. These systems are set to filter air 24 hours a day. Spot tests of air quality indicate that these practices are working, he said.

In its letter, the district also highlighted enhanced 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, which would not be possible with breakfast inside the classroom. Lunch periods typically take place outdoors in a sheltered area.

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

Reasonable safety would be assured by following protocols including social distancing “to the extent possible” and personal hygiene.

“And really, the most important thing is — if there’s a child that has symptoms, parents should keep them home,” Carvalho said. “If we follow that guidance, we should be OK. But a great deal of personal responsibility goes along with it.”

Early in the pandemic, L.A. Unified was notable for safety measures among the most aggressive in the nation. These included universal weekly testing, use of masks outdoors as well as indoors and vaccination mandates for students and employees.

The teachers union — which has consistently pushed for aggressive safety measures — expressed concern about the district’s new direction under the recently appointed Carvalho.

“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 masking and a normal school year is what I am hoping for and looking forward to for my daughter,” said Erin Kyle, who just moved from Studio City to the Westside and has a daughter entering eighth grade. “Yes, we have been vaxxed and boosted and it’s time to return to normal.”

“As a parent, I’m encouraged by the new superintendent,” said Hugo Schwyzer, a Mid-City resident with a daughter in eighth grade and a son in fifth. “Right now, both my kids are mostly just eager to see old friends and get new clothes. That ritual, thankfully, never changes.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.