Everything We Know About LAUSD's Program To Test Students And Staff For Coronavirus

Austin Beutner (left), superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, takes directions from a school nurse after taking a test for COVID-19 at a press event at Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington on Sept. 14, 2020. The nation's second-largest school system was announcing the launch of a district-run coronavirus testing system for students, staff and some family members. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

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(UPDATED, Sept. 15) Way back in March, Stephanie Mednick remembers talking with a group of fellow school nurses about what steps they'd need to take to reopen campuses.

The idea of widespread coronavirus testing did come up. But these nurses knew better than to expect that the Los Angeles Unified School District would actually do it.

"It sort of was like, 'Oh yeah, right, we're really going to do that,'" said Mednick, who's been an LAUSD nurse for 38 years.

But widespread coronavirus screening is now exactly what LAUSD hopes to do. In late August, district leaders announced an ambitious plan — estimated to cost $150 million — to begin testing all students and staff periodically for COVID-19, along with contact tracing efforts and research on school reopening.

Last Thursday, after weeks of preparation, LAUSD administered its first COVID-19 tests.

Superintendent Austin Beutner said LAUSD officials launched the program "to provide a foundation for a return to school by students in as safe a manner as possible, and as soon a manner as possible."

Here's what we know about the program:

I'M AN LAUSD STUDENT OR EMPLOYEE — WHEN WILL I GET INVITED FOR A TEST?

The circle of students and staffers invited for tests will start small and widen gradually:

  • The few-thousand LAUSD employees who are currently assigned to work on campuses were first to receive invites. In even this relatively small group, LAUSD prioritized tests for employees with children attending special, on-site child care centers — and those children were tested, too. Beutner reported that of 5,500 tests administered to these employees and kids in the first two days, seven came back positive: six adults and one teenager.
  • After on-campus staff receive a test, the circle of invites will expand to include LAUSD staff who are working from home — the majority of the district's 60,000 employees. In an interview on Sunday, Beutner said he hoped these invites would go out by this Friday.
  • Finally, after the district tests staff, LAUSD will begin inviting students for tests — starting with students at the elementary level. Once fully operational, the district anticipates testing roughly 20,000 students and staff per day. When will this happen? Within "a few weeks," Beutner said in a speech.

HOW OFTEN WILL I BE TESTED?

That's not clear.

Keep in mind: LAUSD's testing program is not intended to catch every positive case.

While individuals will get their test results back — and certainly the results will allow the district to isolate those who test positive — LAUSD's program is mostly meant to study the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community.

The district has contracted with three research universities — UCLA, Stanford and Johns Hopkins — who will send out periodic invitations for tests, then use the results to generate a high-level picture that will help school officials, in L.A. and around the country, determine when school reopening is safe.

To that end, Beutner said it's up to the research universities and their epidemiological models to determine how often each individual receives a test. Beutner suggested the frequency of testing could vary depending on whether researchers consider someone to be at higher risk from coronavirus.

"Frequency does matter," Beutner said in an August interview — but he also noted the district does not have resources for unlimited, daily tests.

Even if the district's program isn't meant to catch every infection, Mednick feels it's worth the effort and expense: "It's going to give us an idea [of] what is really in the community."

Representatives of L.A. Unified School District employee unions stand in line for COVID-19 tests at Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington on Sept. 14, 2020. The nation's second-largest school system was announcing the launch of a district-run coronavirus testing system for students, staff and some family members. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

HOW WILL I GET THIS INVITATION FOR A TEST?

LAUSD employees will get an email inviting them for a test.

Families will receive invitations and be asked to register for a test via text message, over the Internet, and via a forthcoming app. (More on that below.) Beutner said families can then make an appointment for their student using the device the district has provided for schoolwork.

"Technology is not a barrier," Beutner said — though he acknowledged the "large challenge" of communicating with families about the value of taking the test.

CAN I OPT OUT OF TESTING?

Yes. Testing will be voluntary.

WHERE WILL I TAKE THE TEST?

The tests will be administered at 42 regional administrative sites — the "Communities of Schools" offices scattered across the district. These offices are branches of LAUSD's regional departments, called the "Local Districts."

For example, a student at City Terrace Elementary School is part of the Lincoln Heights & El Sereno Community of Schools, which is nested within Local District East.

I LIVE WITH AN LAUSD STUDENT OR EMPLOYEE — CAN I GET TESTED TOO?

If the staff member or student you live with tests positive for the virus, LAUSD will invite you for a test as well.

I ATTEND A CHARTER SCHOOL IN L.A. — CAN I GET TESTED TOO?

Beutner has said students and staff in independent charter schools will be given the opportunity to participate, but he wasn't aware during an interview on Sunday whether the invitation has been sent yet.

(Remember: some LAUSD schools are "affiliated" charters, which mean they still basically operate as district-run schools. It's a much safer bet they will participate in this testing program.)


LAUSD STAFF, STUDENTS & PARENTS: Has the school district invited you to take a COVID-19 test? We want to hear about your experience! Contact KPCC/LAist reporter Kyle Stokes by email, with a direct message on Twitter or through the form at the bottom of this story.

A sign outside Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington, photographed on Sept. 14, 2020, directs employees to an L.A. Unified School District COVID-19 testing site. The nation's second-largest school system was announcing the launch of a district-run coronavirus testing system for students, staff and some family members. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

WILL THIS TESTING PROGRAM ALLOW LAUSD TO REOPEN CAMPUSES?

Not right away.

For the time being, the district is offering extremely limited in-person instruction — just one-on-one tutoring, outdoors, by appointment. LAUSD hasn't made plans to invite small groups of students back to campus under new public health guidelines. (The district's teachers union has expressed skepticism about whether that step is safe.)

The L.A. County Department of Public Health officials have said they're unlikely to allow schools to invite students to return to campuses until at least November.

But whenever LAUSD students return to in-person instruction, Beutner has said the district's testing program will be useful in tamping down outbreaks.

On Monday, Beutner previewed a COVID-19 "report card" that will inform parents about the results of tests in their school, down to the classroom level.

Classrooms will likely be divided into "cohorts" of no more than a dozen students. Students in a cohort with a positive case would be asked to isolate. If the district's screenings identify three or more positive cases in a single school, that campus would likely temporarily cancel in-person instruction.

But Beutner said these scenarios are quite a ways off.

WHERE DO THE TESTS COME FROM?

Two labs will be processing the test:

  • SummerBio is a Silicon Valley start-up with facilities in the Bay Area. The firm's website says SummerBio's testing system was "designed from the ground up to massively automate the existing gold-standard" COVID-19 testing process. Automation means lower costs, which will allow LAUSD to purchase the quantities of test kits they'll need. They produce the kind of test kits that use nasal swabs. The firm is so new that it says LAUSD will be their first customer.
  • A second, more-established company, Clinical Reference Laboratory which is based in Kansas and is one of the nation's largest private labs — will provide test kits that don't involve nasal swabs. Beutner said its cheek swab kits might be easier to administer to younger students. They will also take longer to process, he said.

It's not clear how much these companies are being paid for their services; district officials refused to share all specific terms of the agreement. About half of the district's $150 million cost estimate will go to "third parties."

"We are not disclosing terms of specific agreements," said LAUSD spokesperson Barbara Jones wrote.

SummerBio, a Silicon Valley start-up, is providing the bulk of the COVID-19 tests the L.A. Unified School District plans to use for its screening system for students and employees. The company's logo adorned a sign giving directions to those taking tests at Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington on Sept. 14, 2020. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

The district is also using an app from Microsoft that will include a symptom checker for students, employees and family members. (At a future date, when campuses reopen, Beutner said students will have to complete that symptom check in order to attend in-person classes.)

The Microsoft-designed app will also aid the district's contact tracing and record-keeping efforts. In mid-August, though, county officials threw some serious side-eye at the district's plans to help with contact tracing.

"This is HIPAA-protected information," said L.A. County Public Health director Barbara Ferrer, referring to the federal law shielding patients' private medical information.

"The school is not a bubble," she added. "People who work there and people who attend those schools live in our communities and they have many other contacts in the community, so the contact tracing efforts need to be led by the Department of Public Health."

But Beutner has said LAUSD will follow all applicable laws and keep sensitive data private.

HOW LONG SHOULD IT TAKE TO GET MY RESULTS?

LAUSD says SummerBio should be able to report results of most nasal swab tests within 24 hours, and the rest within two days.

In fact, officials said the district's contract with SummerBio says that if the lab does not deliver timely results on certain tests, LAUSD is not obligated to pay for those tests.

(Officials say this quick turnaround could prove valuable. At some future date when campuses reopen, if multiple COVID-19 cases are identified, LAUSD could direct its testing capacity at the school to see whether the virus has spread enough to warrant closing the campus again.)

The cheek-swab tests that must be sent to Kansas are another story: those results will take longer to report because they'll have to be flown halfway across the country: "A day-plus," Beutner said.

WHO WILL BE ADMINISTERING THE TESTS?

LAUSD school nurses will be giving the tests. School nurses are members of United Teachers Los Angeles; Stephanie Mednick is the union's school nurse chapter chair.

HOW HAVE PREPARATIONS FOR THE SITES GONE?

When Beutner announced the launch of the program, he aimed to begin testing in earnest by mid-September — meaning Monday's announcement is right on schedule.

He also said there would be early glitches in the testing program — and there have been some.

In August, LAUSD tested all staff assigned to work at these COVID-19 screening sites before sending invites to other on-campus workers. This led to an early miscommunication about the program; the Service Employees International Union Local 99 — which represents custodians, food service employees and bus drivers — issued a statement "calling out LAUSD's lack of planning and disorganization" at the testing sites.

LAUSD workers assigned to these testing sites were given tests themselves, but it was initially unclear whether these workers had to remain at work while they awaited their results. The union also called for training and personal protective equipment for all workers at these sites.

Mednick said she had to supply some of her own PPE in the first days of working at a testing site, though this basic concern was addressed within a few days. (Even as the testing program launches, she still hopes the district can procure more specialized PPE; such as paper smocks instead of plastic ones to help nurses at outdoor testing sites handle the heat.)

But overall, Beutner has said most early wrinkles have been smoothed, and SEIU Local 99 president Max Arias was among the union leaders on-hand for a press conference marking the testing program's launch.

"What this testing does at LAUSD, it brings equity to testing," Arias said, "since testing has always been more likely to be available in communities that have more resources. Black and Brown communities have had, as you know, unequal access to testing."


We'll update this story as we learn more about LAUSD's testing program. Do you have any questions about how the system will work? Do you have insights about how the program is working? Send them to me, KPCC/LAist education reporter Kyle Stokes, either by email, with a direct message on Twitter, or through the question box below.


UPDATES:

Tuesday, Sept. 15, 9:54 a.m.: This post was updated to include numerous new details about LAUSD's testing program as district officials announced its launch.

This story was originally published on Aug. 18, 2020. KPCC/LAist reporter Jackie Fortiér contributed to this story.