LOS ANGELES — As millions of students head back to school, policies aimed at keeping them safe are evolving as COVID-19 infections rise.
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation's second-largest school system in the country, has announced some of the most robust back-to-school protocols yet.
“You can adapt these policies over time, and I think that's the real key is that we're adaptable and we're proactive in really preventing the worst-case scenarios that are very plausible coming into this school year," said Dr. Jana Broadhurst, with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC).
Dr. Broadhurst is director for the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit Clinical Laboratory and Emerging Pathogens Laboratory.
“How the next school year would be approached, those decisions were made when we were in a period of complacency over the summer," said Dr. Broadhurst. “I’m really inspired that LA is making the hard decisions that it’s making; so many school districts haven’t."
She's leading a pilot project in the Omaha Public School district. The first-of-it's kind study in K-12 schools combines individual screening with building-level environmental monitoring.
"To better understand how we can implement methods for testing in the K-12 environment and look at how methods could be scaled and sustained for large public school districts," said Dr. Broadhurst.
Her team found that infection rates were two-and-a-half times higher for staff and nearly six times higher for students than routinely observed.
“There’s not one right answer to the question of how often to test and how to organize a testing program, and I think that the most important thing is that there is a testing program and that it works," said Dr. Broadhurst.
However, she says weekly testing is ideal for identifying as many asymptomatic cases as possible before there's an opportunity to infect others.
She says regular surveillance can help protect individuals and help schools adjust protocols in response to more infectious variants.
In New York City, schools host weekly testing for a randomly selected 20% of students and staff in school buildings.
"Really relies upon smart partnerships and really close coordination with local and state public health departments to make sure they’re running as efficiently as possible," said Dr. Broadhurst. “I think we’re not going to have all the measures in place we need, by a long shot, when the school year starts. And there’s going to have to be a lot of effort to put programs in place quickly."
LAUSD parent Gina Demirchyan says her family is willing to adhere to safety protocols if it means they can attend school in person.
“They were missing human beings, little kids their age," said Demirchyan. “It’s good to be cautious, but it was one step forward, two steps back.”
At the end of last year, her students were able to attend school in person.
“They [LAUSD] had agreed to have kids back with some restrictions like masks have to be worn, 6 feet apart. They had to do a weekly COVID test that they were doing on campus," said Demirchyan. “It was completely worth it! The last few weeks of school, it was back to, like in no time, it was that girl drama, other friends, she said, he said.”
Fifth-grade moments missed from a year spent online.
“I sense that this virus is probably here to stay, and we're going to have to figure out a way to live our lives and live with it," said Demirchyan.
Dr. Broadhurst says there have been enormous strides in building out the operation capacity of laboratories to support this type of testing.
“We are facing a more challenging scenario than we have faced yet during this pandemic," she said. "But we now have the tools to address this effectively. We just have to use them.”