The nation’s second-largest school district will only tell parents if their kids are considered “close contacts” of infected classmates.
By Danny Feingold
Even as pediatric COVID-19 cases have risen dramatically across the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District has decided not to disclose to some parents that students in their children’s classrooms have tested positive for the disease. The policy adopted by the nation’s second largest school district, whose fall semester started this week, could effectively limit the ability of parents to remove their kids from school or have them tested for COVID-19 after potentially being exposed to the highly contagious Delta variant. Vaccines for children under 12 have not yet been granted emergency approval by the FDA, heightening concerns about the spike in pediatric COVID cases.
In a 44-page COVID containment plan released to the public on Friday, Aug. 13, three days before school reopened, LAUSD states that “those in close contact with the student [who has tested positive for COVID-19] will be notified of the potential exposure by school administration” and then informed about county health department protocols. The LAUSD policy defines “close contact” as any student or staff member who has been within six feet for more than 15 cumulative minutes over a 24-hour period with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Close contacts are then required to quarantine, according to county health department rules.
However, the six-foot definition of close contact was questioned by some experts even before the emergence of the Delta variant, and it could exclude many if not most kids who share a class with an infected staff member or student. Neither the school nor the district is obligated to inform parents whose kids share a classroom with an infected person but are not designated as close contacts.
In an email, an LAUSD spokesperson states, “When a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19 or if they are exposed to someone who tests positive, the Community Engagement staff will instruct them to stay home to immediately stop the spread of the virus. That means the student or employee will not be allowed on campus until it is safe for them to return. Beginning August 16, families and students can visit https://achieve.lausd.net/covidreportcard to view their school’s COVID-19 Dashboard. These dashboards will be updated daily and will report all active positive cases among students and staff, including whether any cases were a result of in-school transmission.”
The website cited by LAUSD, however, does not identify the class in which confirmed cases have occurred within a school. Without this information, there is no way for parents to know if a student in their child’s class has tested positive unless their child meets the district’s definition of a close contact.
“The risk of becoming infected through group interactions typical in a classroom setting clearly justifies informing all parents of any new cases.”
~ Angelo Bellomo, former LAUSD director of environmental health and safety
Dr. Jeanne Noble, an emergency care physician who directs COVID response at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, told Capital & Main that LAUSD’s standard for informing parents is consistent with policies found in most schools. “The school community at large should be kept informed of COVID cases within the school, but identifying cases within a classroom while preserving the anonymity of the student(s) involved is challenging, if not impossible.”
But Angelo Bellomo, the former director of environmental health and safety for LAUSD who also served on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, questions the district’s policy. “The risk of becoming infected through group interactions typical in a classroom setting clearly justifies informing all parents of any new cases. In general, informing and educating the public is key to their understanding the risk and taking actions they believe are in the best interests of their children,” Bellomo says.
Teresa Gaines, a parent leader with the advocacy group Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles, says the district’s policy of not informing all parents about positive cases within a classroom affected her family’s decision to keep their two elementary school age kids at home. “I think [LAUSD officials] are trying to not cause panic,” Gaines told Capital & Main. But “it is counterproductive to keeping the children who are not vaccinated and the teacher and the staff safe. There could be other people who got it, especially with Delta. Everyone should be told. This was a major red flag.”
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LAUSD’s COVID-19 containment plan — whose centerpiece is a vast weekly testing program for all students and staff, along with universal masking — includes several other elements that may prove controversial.
While all students and staff were required to provide a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus after summer break, they were allowed to get tested as early as 14 days prior to the Aug. 16 reopening. Given this window, a significant number of kids and staff may have arrived on the first day of school with cases of COVID-19 that went undetected. L.A. County saw nearly 25,000 new cases in the seven days ending Aug. 15.
“A 14-day window is meaningless,” says Noble. “If they wanted to decrease the chances of kids arriving already infected with COVID, they should have required either a negative test within the past 72 hours or performed universal rapid antigen testing on the first day of school.”
While all LAUSD staff are required to be vaccinated, they have until Oct. 15 to be fully inoculated.
LAUSD’s policy also stipulates that students or staff who have had close contact with someone who is an “unconfirmed symptomatic case” of COVID-19 — a person who exhibits signs of the disease but has not tested positive for it — are allowed to remain on campus, with no requirement that they be tested immediately for the virus. Close contacts of someone with an unconfirmed symptomatic case must quarantine only if that person subsequently tests positive.
In addition, LAUSD allows staff members to eat indoors, potentially creating situations where unmasked people are exposed to COVID-19 inside school break rooms or other areas. While all staff are required to be vaccinated, they have until Oct. 15 to be fully inoculated, and the spread of the Delta variant has brought with it a significant number of breakthrough infections among those who are vaccinated. Studies have shown that vaccinated people infected with Delta can have viral loads as high as unvaccinated individuals.
“After almost 18 months of widespread outdoor dining to limit exposures, [requiring LAUSD staff to eat outside] seems like an appropriate and reasonable measure, especially until after the Oct. 15 deadline for all school staff to be vaccinated,” says Bellomo.
Nationally, cases of COVID-19 among children have increased sharply since the Delta variant became the dominant strain, with more than 120,000 kids testing positive between Aug. 5 and 12. Hospitalizations among children have also risen, though not as dramatically. The spike in pediatric COVID-19 has sparked fierce battles over masking policies and has spurred leading advocates for children’s health to urge quick action by the FDA to approve vaccines for kids under 12.