LAUSD Has Started Testing Its Staff For COVID-19 — And Students Will Start Getting Invites Soon

Jose Vatres (R) holds his son Aidin who reacts as nurse practitioner Alexander Panis (L) takes a nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at a testing station in Compton on April 28, 2020. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

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After nearly one month of trials and practice runs, Los Angeles public school officials have announced they're ready to start testing all of the district's students and staff members every so often for COVID-19.

L.A. Unified School District officials said the first invitations for coronavirus screenings went out last week: some 5,000 district staff working on campuses and their children, who are receiving special on-site child care, took tests on Thursday and Friday. Testing for this group of employees will continue this week.

"We're just getting started," LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said in an interview on Sunday.

By the end of this week, Beutner expects all LAUSD staff to receive invitations for COVID-19 tests at one of 42 sites districtwide. Within a few more weeks, he expects the program to expand to all students, starting at the elementary level.

MANY LAUSD FAMILIES LACK ACCESS TO TESTS

Very few public school systems have attempted what LAUSD is now trying: to stand up a COVID-19 testing regimen at, essentially, the district's expense.

Beutner has argued LAUSD is well-positioned to fill not only an existing void of community testing and contact tracing, but also to provide a new epidemiological perspective on COVID-19's impact. He said Sunday:

We will be testing many more asymptomatic people ... who might not otherwise have felt symptoms even though they're carrying the virus. We'll be testing a lot more children. We'll be testing many in communities where there's no access to tests. The universe [of people] we'll be testing is different than the universe that has been tested.

Beutner also cautioned that because the district's testing is proactive, not reactive, the benchmark "positivity rate" is likely to be far lower. Of those 5,000 initial tests LAUSD conducted last week, five came back positive for COVID-19.


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.


'OPEN PRACTICES'

Beutner has said he expected early glitches in the testing program — and there have been some.

In late August, the Service Employees International Union Local 99 — which represents many classified staff in the district — 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.

One school nurse told KPCC/LAist she had to supply some of her own PPE in the first days working at a testing site, though this basic concern was addressed within a few days.

Beutner chalked these concerns up to expected start-up challenges: "We've had, in effect, open practices," he said. Now, he continued, the sites are ready for ramp-up.

HOW THE DISTRICT'S TESTS WILL AFFECT REOPENING

It's not clear how often LAUSD students and staff can expect to be tested. The district's program also isn't designed to catch every positive COVID-19 case.

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

Beutner plans to preview on Monday a COVID-19 "report card" that will inform parents about the results of tests in their school down to the classroom level. 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 temporarily cancel in-person instruction.

At full capacity, Beutner said the program will test roughly 20,000 people each day — and perhaps as many as 40,000 people.

But Beutner said these scenarios are quite a ways off. 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.)

L.A. County Department of Public Health officials have also said the green light to begin inviting students back to campuses in larger numbers is likely at least six weeks away.