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

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ARLETA, CA - NOVEMBER 08: Bernadette Williams high-fives her son Ocean (cq) Williams, 5, who got his COVID vaccine after his brother River, 6, at Arleta High School on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. With the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's approval of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, Los Angeles Unified will offer voluntary vaccine access to students. The district highly encourages the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. However, it will not be part of Los Angeles Unified's current student vaccine requirement. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
When Los Angeles schools open on Aug. 15, mask wearing will be optional and other COVID-19 safety rules relaxed to match with county requirements. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Unified school leaders on Tuesday officially stepped back from COVID-19 safety protocols that have been among the most far-reaching in the country, choosing instead to mirror current county requirements and join most other school systems throughout the region, marking a reordering of priorities as the pandemic seeps into a third academic year.

What that means for students and parents is a continued deferment of L.A. Unified School District's vaccination mandate for students and voluntary masking in the nation's second-largest school system. There's also an end to weekly universal testing for coronavirus infections and no baseline testing before the Aug. 15 start of school.

Like many other school systems, L.A. Unified has shifted to "response testing" in which COVID-19 testing is required for those who are sick, who are close contacts or when there is a potential for an outbreak.

Supt. Alberto Carvalho insists that the district is not compromising safety and will continue to go to great lengths at considerable cost to keep schools safe. But the tenor of the district message Tuesday was strikingly different from former Supt. Austin Beutner's approach, reflecting the evolving phases of the pandemic at a time when fear of the virus is waning among many. Last week, Los Angeles County announced it will not reinstitute a universal indoor public mask mandate after small improvements in the region’s coronavirus case and hospitalization rates.

In fall of 2020 and into spring 2021, Beutner oversaw a nation-leading mass testing program. Beutner accused other officials of putting politics before safety, and he declined to reopen campuses until every employee had an opportunity to be vaccinated. A student and staff vaccine mandate followed.

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

As the 2022-23 school year begins, education leaders throughout Los Angeles County said they must assess how much to shift to other priorities, including an intense focus on academic recovery. When asked about school safety, local superintendents frequently pivoted quickly from pandemic safety to security reviews prompted by the deadly mass shooting in May at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

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

Most of the county's 80 school systems appear to be following a course similar to L.A. Unified. Response testing appears to be the most common model, said county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

But there are variations. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified officials, as of Tuesday, were deliberating how to approach testing. Culver City Unified will provide take-home tests for all students just prior to the start of school, then weekly on-site testing beginning the second week.

"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 one month of weekly testing.

The rethinking in L.A. Unified includes ramping down its Daily Pass system. To enter school grounds last year, 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.

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

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 2021-22 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."

Parents remain divided over the best path forward.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 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," Rochlin 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.



"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."

The teachers union — which has consistently pushed for aggressive safety 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 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.