“All hands on deck” as LAUSD returns from Winter break

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Students spend time at McAuliffe Middle School’s new WellSpace known as “The Corner” on campus. It’s part of the LAUSD’s increased focus on students’ mental health. (Photo Courtesy of McAuliffe Middle School)

Public schools across Southern California are back open after winter break amid a surge in Covid-19 cases fueled by the latest coronavirus variant Omicron.

For some school districts, it’s been a bumpy start to 2022 due to staff being infected with Covid-19 or in quarantine due to an exposure.

Long Beach Unified started classes last week. This past Monday, nearly 500 teachers missed school, according to the Long Beach Post. A shortage of substitutes to fill in for sick staff has made things harder.

Despite the challenges, state and local leaders are committed to keeping schools open for in-person instruction.

“It is our goal to keep our students on campus learning in classrooms because we believe our campuses are safe, caring, learning environments for children,” Los Alamitos Unified School District board member Marlys Davidson wrote in a text message to Spotlight Schools.

This week, Los Al USD’s nine campuses across Los Alamitos, Seal Beach and Rossmoor are opening back up after winter break. Students at the district’s six elementary schools started back on Jan. 10. The two middle schools and Los Alamitos High School welcomed students back on Jan. 11.

In a phone interview on Monday, Los Al USD Superintendent Dr. Andrew Pulver said there were no major staffing issues with elementary campuses.

“Teacher absences for the first day back [from break] were relatively normal,” Dr. Pulver said. He said about 10 elementary school teachers were out and it wasn’t known if the absences were all related to Covid-19. As for student attendance, he said it was around 89% which is down from the regular daily average of around 95%.

Asked how the district is preparing for future potential staffing shortages, Dr. Pulver said: “It’s all hands on deck.”

“When there are shortages, administration, counselors and the Cabinet have and will continue to cover classes. I have volunteered to do so as well,” said board trustee Davidson, who taught middle school for years in the district.

Davidson noted that the board recently increased the daily pay for substitute teachers to between $155 and $185 to help attract more applicants.

It isn’t just teachers that may miss work. Dr. Pulver said he visited Los Alamitos Elementary yesterday because the principal was out and the Superintendent ended up helping with lunch duty.

There are currently 114 reported infections among staff and students districtwide, according to a Jan. 10 update on Los Al USD’s Covid-19 Dashboard. This only reflects current infections that are voluntarily reported to schools. Thirty-one of the reported infections are among staff.

District Distributed Roughly 4,000 test kits to families before school started

In addition to staffing challenges, families have struggled to find Covid-19 tests. Adding to the frustration was the delay of delivering rapid antigen home tests promised by Gov. Gavin Newsom for every public school student in the state. The goal was to test students before they returned to classrooms from the holidays to minimize on-campus transmission.

But the tests arrived last week after school had already started at many Orange County campuses. And the state’s first shipment of tests was less than half of what is needed to cover all public school students in the county.

A spokeswoman for the Governor’s office told the Los Angeles Times the delays were due to storms and supply chain shortages.

Another shipment of more than 256,000 rapid tests arrived Tuesday morning at the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE). That shipment represents the rest of what was promised by the state to cover all students in OC, according to Ian Hanigan, Chief Communications Officer for OCDE.

Some school districts provided their own tests to staff and students prior to the break and others, including Los Angeles Unified, are requiring a negative test to return to campus.

For the Los Alamitos USD, starting classes a week later than other districts meant more time to hand out the tests from the state.

During a drive-thru distribution on Friday, around 4,000 of the home antigen test kits were handed out to district families and leftovers were taken to school sites, Dr. Pulver said.

While there is no requirement for students to get tested, Dr. Pulver said he knew families were using the tests to screen students prior to school starting. “I know a lot of our parents took that seriously,” he said.

He said the rapid tests Los Al USD received from the state have an expiration date of Feb. 2022. The tests that arrived this week from the California Dept. of Public Health have a use-by date of June 2022, according to Hanigan from OCDE.

Dr. Pulver said the rapid tests will be prioritized for symptomatic students or staff, or people who need to test out of isolation or quarantine to return to campus per Orange County Health Care Agency guidelines.

Campus Safety Protocols

School officials continue to remind families how they can help reduce on-campus transmission. Students and staff are asked to wear well-fitting masks, vaccination and booster shots are encouraged, and anyone with symptoms is advised to stay home.

In an email to staff, LAHS Principal Christiana Kraus outlined some other safety measures on her campus including staggering student dismissal times from classes in the 700 Building to minimize hallway crowding; advising teachers to keep doors open for increased ventilation and reminding teachers to make sure students are wearing masks when they enter classrooms.

Concerns over safety protocols almost triggered a strike by Los Alamitos High School teachers during the start of the 2020-21 school year.

“We will continue to adhere to California Department of Public Health and county guidelines to keep students and staff on every campus safe,” Davidson said.

For families feeling uncomfortable sending students on campus, the options are limited as California no longer provides funding for remote learning.

“At this point, online programs will be orchestrated through the county should parents decide to have their children stay at home,” Davidson said. The district has partnered with the Orange County Dept. of Education for an independent study option.

Dr. Pulver said he saw a lot of happy students at L.A.E yesterday. “They were so joyful and excited to be back at school,” he said.

Davidson noted that the pandemic is constantly changing.

“This is an ever evolving, complex situation with no clear end in sight. We will continue to be as proactive as possible with each and every aspect because our children, families, staff, and community deserve the best we can provide for them,” she said.

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“All hands on deck” as LAUSD returns from Winter break