Los Angeles schools start online classes alongside ambitious coronavirus testing programme


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Amid public alarm over the inadequacy of coronavirus testing across the nation, Los Angeles schools on Monday will begin a sweeping programme to test hundreds of thousands of students and teachers as the nation’s second-largest school district goes back to school – online.

The programme, which will be rolled out over the next few months by the Los Angeles Unified School District, will administer tests to nearly 700,000 students and 75,000 employees as the district awaits permission from public health authorities to resume in-person instruction, said Austin Beutner, the district’s superintendent.

It appears to be the most ambitious testing initiative so far among major public school districts, most of which are also starting school remotely but have yet to announce detailed testing plans.

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New York City, where the virus has been under control, is the only major school district in the country planning to welcome students back into classrooms part time this fall. The city is asking all staff members to be tested before school starts on 10 September and has said it will provide expedited results.

Staff members should be tested regularly throughout the school year, New York City has said. It is not yet clear how often students will be tested or whether the city will take random samples from the 1.1 million children at its 1,800 public schools.

Mr Beutner said that Los Angeles’ programme, developed over the past four months, would begin this week, well before schools are expected to let students into classrooms, and that it would augment – and probably far exceed – existing testing efforts run by the city and county of Los Angeles.

Overseeing the testing will be a task force of epidemiologists, analysts and other experts from the University of California, Los Angeles; Johns Hopkins University; Stanford University; Microsoft; and the insurers Anthem Blue Cross and Health Net. Mr Beutner said he would lead the initiative with Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary in the Obama administration and who will coordinate with other government agencies.

“Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures,” said Mr Beutner, adding that the goal was to make the programme a national model.

Surging infection rates have put Los Angeles County on a state public health watch list that has prevented schools from allowing students physically back into classrooms. The school district, which announced in July that it would begin the year with only online instruction, was among the first in the nation to abandon plans for even a partial in-person return.

Since then, though reports of new infections appear to be slowly declining, public schools across the country have pulled back from more ambitious plans to reopen as case numbers have remained persistently high.

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Public health experts have said that expanded coronavirus testing, with rapid results, is the key to curbing the spread of the virus, particularly in schools, where teachers and students mingle regularly in close quarters. Six months into the pandemic, however, testing remains a persistent hurdle, with backlogs and other issues at state health departments, including California’s, and long wait times in some areas for test results.

The Trump administration has also provided mixed messages on testing. The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony S Fauci, has promised “more testing, not less”, but the administration’s virus testing chief, admiral Brett P Giroir, has advised against mass testing.

In a conference call last week, Mr Giroir told reporters that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention explicitly “does not recommend routine baseline testing of all students or all employees”.

“Not only do we not recommend this strategy of testing everyone on a frequent basis,” said Mr Giroir, “but I think it could instil a false sense of security: ‘Well, I’m negative, therefore I can do whatever I want to do.’”

Mr Beutner cited advice from the director-general of the World Health Organisation: “Test, test, test.”

He noted that a recent survey of district employees found that 88 per cent wanted a robust system of testing and tracing. He compared the testing initiative to other broad community efforts that the district has undertaken during the pandemic, such as its provision of more than 50 million free meals.

The testing programme, which is expected to cost the district about $150m (£114.6m), or about $300 (£229) per student, will start small with about a few thousand teachers and other district employees, who will be working from sanitised school facilities rather than from home, Mr Beutner said. Initial testing, to be done at 42 regional school facilities across the sprawling district, will also include about 2,000 children enrolled by employees at school-based day care programmes.

After that first round of testing, which Mr Beutner said was expected to take a few weeks, the district will gradually broaden testing to all employees and students, with a goal in the early phases of establishing a baseline. Student testing will be done at neighbourhood schools. Family members who show virus symptoms will also be asked to come in for testing, but the logistics haven’t been determined yet, Mr Beutner said.

“The opportunity to use testing to get ahead of the virus was missed in January and again in May due to a lack of capacity,” Mr Beutner said. Now, he added, with students stuck at home, Californians have another chance.

“We must be ready with a robust system of testing and contact tracing so the third time can be the charm,” he said.

New York Times