LA students back in school amid COVID-19 surge

Hundreds of thousands of students from the Los Angeles area started school on Monday, a massive return to personal education marked by pandemic anxiety, a sense of excitement and early morning frustration over the failure of the county’s health screening system that caused long waits to come To enter campus.

The scenes from the second largest school district in the country included the familiar: yellow buses crossed the street on 1,500 lines; the youngest children and their parents exchanged tearful hugs and goodbyes; Friends enjoyed happy reunions; Teachers felt the nervousness of standing in front of the students after the long absence.

The morning also showed signs of the times: masked students, weekly coronavirus tests, backpacks full of towels and disinfectant – and a daily online health check-up that collapsed the moment it was most needed.

Concerned students and parents queued on sidewalks and around corners, waiting up to an hour for campus access after the “day pass” system couldn’t keep up with demand and couldn’t perform the required health checks.

On campuses in the sprawling district, students were delayed 30 minutes, an hour or more from entering schools. The problem seemed particularly acute in high schools, as many students missed their first year.

“You have the normal chaos of the first day of school with the additional layers of COVID,” said school board member Nick Melvoin, who described the health care system’s performance as a disappointment. “But we can get away with it. And I think everyone is excited to be back at school. ”

Students or parents should log on to a district website each morning before school to obtain a passport. The software asks whether the students have a cough, fever or tiredness. When students say they are comfortable and have no symptoms of illness, the system issues an ID card with a scannable code for that day. Like an event ticket, the pass can be printed out or scanned at the entrance to the school.

The computer-generated pass is not mandatory – those without it can answer screening questions on-site – but it’s designed to save time and replace hundreds of student-on-site interactions. But the system was apparently overwhelmed by the volume of traffic on Monday and shut down or access was repeatedly denied. Teachers and other staff rushed to the school entrance to help with verbal screenings.

Clipboard Megan Reilly didn’t say the Daily Pass system crashed but said it was working slower than expected due to the high volume.

“The district worked with the seller all day fixing the problem to speed it up,” said Reilly. When asked if long lines in front of the campus were the new norm, she said, “Today is the first day of school. I think we’re getting better and better every day. “

On Monday evening it was unclear whether the system had been repaired. The district officials did not respond to questions about the status of the system.

A student waiting outside Marshall High in Los Feliz said the long wait definitely “killed my mood.” He pointed wistfully to the window where his first lesson was taking place.

Parents responded by text message and email with comments such as “catastrophe”, “total failure” and “unacceptable”.

Others were just excited to have kids on campus again – and were willing to be patient.

“Ultimately, my daughter texted me and said she would wear four masks to school if asked so she could be on campus with her teachers, classmates and friends,” said Jana Fain, whose child is Franklin Dual Language Middle School in Highland visits Park. “Her face was full of joy after school, it broke my heart.”

Some parents questioned the need for a day pass as it is based on the honor system and is not mandatory, although officials urge families to use it.

School board member Jackie Goldberg said the system is legitimate.

“As soon as everyone gets the hang of it, the day pass will let the students in faster,” said Goldberg. “It is also used to book a COVID test and you can record vaccination information. Can people lie? Naturally. But mostly people don’t do this. ”

In primary schools, the nervousness was stronger than usual on the first day.

“I’m nervous,” said Sandra Espinoza as she struggled to get to the Daily Pass site while waiting in line to check in her son Özil, who is entering the kindergarten at Montara Avenue Elementary School on South Gate.

She is worried about the burgeoning Delta variant and reports that young people are getting infected.

Still, her son was excited, she said. As he stood in line, he tugged at her shirt, eager to get inside. She took a picture of him with a mini chalkboard.

With most students attending correspondence school since March 2020, a large number of students are attending campus for the first time – ninth and tenth graders in high school, sixth and seventh graders in middle school. Many parents have kept their children out of kindergarten for the past year, which has created further academic and social insecurity.

Teachers had to explain that students cannot get up to get a snack or use the toilet whenever they want. And while sharing is a good thing – be it crayons or food – it’s not that good this year as the coronavirus is floating around.

One of the biggest challenges was the district’s determination to test all students and staff for coronavirus infection before they are allowed back on campus. The district has around 465,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade and more than 75,000 employees.

The members of the school board had recently been informed of the results of the basic tests. Board chairman Kelly Gonez said late last week less than 1% of students tested positive for coronavirus infection – about six students per 1,000. This rate is similar to that seen towards the end of summer school. The rate for employees was seven per 1,000.

LA Unified’s security protocols are touted as the strictest in the country and rely on several measures such as masking, improved ventilation, and increased hand washing. In addition, Reilly announced on Friday that all teachers and school staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 15.

Regardless of the measures, around 3% of students start school online through a stand-alone study program. To make that choice, long forms had to be filled out and trusted classmates and teachers left behind – at least for now.

Parents who have chosen to return still express concern. What happens if there is an outbreak at a school? How many students are being sent home and for how long?

It’s not clear how future schools – in LA Unified and elsewhere – will post information about campus infections. Coronavirus cases must be reported to the LA County Department of Public Health, which will work with school officials to identify close contacts and notify them for follow-up testing and possible quarantines.

Kathy Kuzniar feared the worst as her daughter, a sophomore high school student, wasn’t looking forward to returning due to fear of COVID.

“We dropped her off and knew straight away that it was going to be a long day full of snakes and weirdnesses for her,” said Kuzniar. “She had to stand in line after her first period was over.” But things were starting to look up. “She called us at lunchtime and was in a good mood with all the students she saw who helped and provided good information.”

Kuzniar thanked the “teachers, staff and administrators who work so hard to make this possible”.

The Times writer, Paloma Esquivel, contributed to this report.

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