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LA Unified Schools Will Offer ‘Periodic’ Coronavirus Tests To All Staff, Students This Year

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Los Angeles Unified School District officials have long warned that a lack of COVID-19 testing options in the community would make it difficult to reopen campuses any time soon.

Now, after waiting months for public or private providers to step up, the nation’s second-largest school district is taking matters into its own hands.

LAUSD leaders announced plans Sunday to provide periodic coronavirus testing to nearly half-a-million students and more than 66,000 employees over the course of the coming year, all as part of a broader effort to research COVID-19 and determine whether school reopening is safe.

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“The health system, ideally, would be doing this,” LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said in an interview Sunday, “but the health system hasn’t responded quickly enough to the need.” (Beutner was careful not to lay blame with any specific public or private entity.)

“We can’t wait,” Beutner added later, “because we need to make sure our teachers and those working in schools are safe. We need to make sure our students can get back to school as soon as reasonably possible.”

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A healthcare worker directs a patient at a testing site at the Forum in Inglewood. (Courtesy of the County of Los Angeles)

TESTING, CONTACT TRACING AND RESEARCH

While LAUSD will begin a new academic year on Tuesday with almost all students learning remotely, testing could begin as early as this week for the limited number of district staff who will be working on-campus. Screenings could begin as early as next week for children signed up for child care facilities the district is offering for on-campus workers.

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Over time, the COVID-19 testing program will scale up to test all students and staff — and even household members of students and staff who test positive — at least once. Participants will receive invitations for future “periodic” tests at district-run sites, which will be open even before LAUSD decides to resume on-campus instruction, according to a district press release.

The testing is part of a much broader pact between LAUSD and a collection of major research universities, health providers and lab and tech companies. Among them: Microsoft, which will provide software that will allow local school administrators to aid in contact tracing and other efforts to curb COVID-19’s spread.

Together, the entities will form a task force — co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — aimed at generating research that could help school districts nationwide decide when to reopen campuses.

‘THE HEALTH CRISIS IS BECOMING AN EDUCATION CRISIS’

The involvement of a member of President Obama’s cabinet is only one indication of the significance of LAUSD’s research effort.

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Beutner said he was unaware of another school system in the U.S. establishing its own testing network, contact tracing system and epidemiological research — a statement that’s difficult to verify. (We were pointed to at least one other example: thanks to an outside organization, employees in Denver Public Schools and seven other nearby Colorado school systems will have access to testing every two weeks.)

In Los Angeles, the testing and tracing effort will be costly: Beutner estimated it will cost LAUSD more than $150 million. The district has a nearly-$9 billion operating budget.

But Beutner said the cost was well worth it if it ensured reopening schools could be done safely — and more quickly. He urged the federal government to step in to fund the effort.

Beutner drew an analogy with hospital funding, arguing that as the threat from the pandemic mounted, governments did not say, "Yeah, more people need ventilators, but we can’t afford them, so good luck."

“I think the same approach has to be taken in the education system," Beutner said. "The health crisis is becoming an education crisis because students have been absent from schools for too long.”

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A padlocked entrance to Thomas Starr King Middle School, an L.A. Unified School District campus in Silver Lake, on April 1, 2020. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

In April, Los Angeles claimed to be the first major city in the U.S. to offer universal COVID-19 testing when the county opened its testing centers up to all residents — even those without symptoms. But by late June, it was harder to secure an appointment for a test. Now, local officials are no longer advertising testing for all, prioritizing tests for essential workers and individuals who were exposed or have symptoms.

While Beutner avoided criticism of other state and local officials, his school system is now entering a vacuum for testing that other government agencies have struggled for months to fill.

HOW OFTEN WILL STUDENTS AND STAFF BE TESTED?

Students and staff members will receive their individual test results, and will be able to self-quarantine while LAUSD staff perform contact-tracing functions.

But the ultimate purpose of LAUSD’s effort is not necessarily to create a web of testing that will catch each individual COVID-19 infection.

The testing is aimed more to help researchers learn about COVID-19’s prevalence in the community and to use that data to inform high-level education and public health decisions, including when and whether to reopen school campuses.

In effect, LAUSD is offering itself as an epidemiological testing ground at a steep cost to the district.

To that end, though, Beutner said it isn’t clear yet how often individual students or teachers can expect to be invited to take a COVID-19 test. In his interview, Beutner suggested different students or employees may be tested at different frequencies depending on their varying levels of risk.

WHO’S PERFORMING THE RESEARCH AND TESTING?

Three universities are leading the research effort, offering their services pro bono: UCLA, Stanford and Johns Hopkins.

A district statement quoted Dr. Steven M. Dubinett, director of UCLA’s Clinical & Translational Science Institute, as saying the three universities “will bring breadth and depth of scientific expertise to study the impact and effects of Los Angeles Unified reopening plan and to share the information learned from these research efforts throughout the world.”

They’ll be relying on data from tests processed in two labs. SummerBio, a Silicon Valley start-up with facilities in the Bay Area, offers nasal swab tests — and because the company has automated much of the lab work to process these tests, it promises to provide tests at cheaper costs and with quicker results.

A second, more-established lab — Clinical Reference Laboratory, which is based in Lenexa, 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.

In addition to data from LAUSD’s tests, the task force will consider data from Anthem Blue Cross and Health Net, which will also help ensure “every eligible family is enrolled in Medi-Cal or Covered California.”

LAUSD will ask for employee volunteers to administer these tests to students, though Beutner noted he hopes the district’s school nurses fill that role. School nurses are represented by United Teachers Los Angeles, and the union’s new distance learning agreement with the district does not contemplate on-site COVID-19 testing.

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