Area school districts cope with the latest COVID-19 surge

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

DOWNEY — Fighting to keep local schools open, the Downey Unified School District distributed nearly 20,000 at COVID-19 testing kits for students the first week of spring semester, while the Lynwood Unified School District conducted onsite tests to detect cases driven by the Omicron variant.

Downey Superintendent John Garcia said in a video that there are no plans at the federal, state or county levels to return to virtual education despite the rising COVID numbers.

Hee said the emphasis is to keep kids at school “for their academic, social and emotional well-being.”

“We will continue to focus on those things, as we have since August, when we returned to school,” Garcia said.

As of Jan. 14, the district reported 124 infections among students, and 11 positive cases from staff.

Warren High took the brunt of the cases with 58 students and seven employees, followed by Gallatin Elementary with 36 pupils and one worker. Downey High had 14 students test positive, Gauldin Elementary recorded seven students and one worker, Alameda Elementary reported six students and one staff member, and Sussman Middle School had three students test positive.

County officials reported more than 40,000 COVID-19 daily infections five days in a row Jan. 12-16, and an average of 37,000 to 40,000 cases the first week of January.

On the new outdoor masking protocol required by the county, Garcia said the order aligns with what Downey Unified had required since all district campuses went back to in-classroom teaching last summer.

Also, the district immediately implemented the New Year’s recommendation to upgrade usage of medical respirators for everyone, banned cloth masks and continued frequent disinfecting of desks, classrooms and high touch areas while telling students to practice social distancing.

There are 22,000 students enrolled in the Downey district. Garcia said the district will continue holding vaccination clinics at campuses as the crisis rolls on.

“I want to be very transparent and honest with you: This month of January, given what’s happening now with the surge in relationship to Omicron, we are going to face some challenging times together, again in the coming weeks,” Garcia said.

He asked the community to continue working together with patience and flexibility.

The district distributed 16,000 at-home test kits to students on Jan. 7 and 3,500 the next day at a drive-through event held at Downey High School.

Families that have not picked up testing kits can request them at their children’s schools.

Each kit has two tests. In case the first test comes back positive, parents are advised to call the county Department of Public Health hotline at (833) 540-0470 or to the child’s medical provider to report the condition.

However, a retest should be conducted five days after the initial reading. If the second test results are negative, the district said to take a photo and file the answers into the Daily Covid Screener so that the student receives clearance to rejoin school.

If parents decide not to retest, students with positive COVID-19 readings should quarantine 10 days before returning to school.

For its part, the Lynwood school district continues to test staff and students, but proof of a negative test was not required to return to in-person classes on Jan 11.

Although he did not offer figures, Superintendent Gudiel Crosthwaite said student attendance the first week of 2022 was strong. Lynwood Unified had 13,240 students enrolled when the pandemic started in March 2020.

Crosthwaite announced that 96% of the district’s 2,240 employees are vaccinated, and said the California Department of Public Health provided at-home antigen test kits for all students.

“We encourage our families to visit one of our clinics, or any of the many vaccine opportunities in the area, and become fully vaccinated,” Crosthwaite said.

He said the district was ready to support families that report positive COVID cases as schools reopened, “by providing specific isolation guidelines and timelines for each case,” and encouraged parents to keep their children at home if they present symptoms.

Crosthwaite asked parents to be patient as the district may experience staff shortages due to infections in the following weeks, but pledged to provide students with the instruction and resources they need.

Following guidance from the county’s Department of Public Health, the district distributed medical-grade masks to students with instructions to wear them indoors and outdoors, only to be removed at lunch break or when drinking.

Faculty and staff received new N95 masks for added safety, the superintendent said. Previous district sanitary measures required packets of three-ply masks to be available at all classrooms.

As for sports and extracurricular activities, the county’s Public Health Department issued new guidelines that ban activities whenever a team or group outbreak of four or more cases is detected in a 14-day period.

Teams will be suspended for seven days, and the county’s Public Health Department will have to issue clearance to resume activities. Skills building and individual conditioning can resume as long as quarantined individuals comply with isolation orders, the county said.

Masking is required when practicing sports indoors, at locker rooms, in classrooms and for students resting or not participating. Likewise, masking is mandated outdoors if the activity is considered from moderate to high-risk level and social distancing is not possible due to players having contact.

The rules also apply for referees, coaches and training staff.

The health order advises coaches to keep records of athletes’ vaccination status and encourages students 12 years and older to get boosted and reduce transmissions risks.

If trainers determine that any sport does not lend to wearing masks while being practiced, athletes are allowed to remove them as long as they are fully inoculated. Those partially or non-vaccinated must test twice a week and be negative to participate.

If someone results positive, all teammates and staff regardless of vaccination status should test once a week and comeback negative.

Ashley Greaney, public relations specialist with the Downey Unified School District, said the district complies with government regulations on extracurricular activities, students athletes wear medical grade masks indoors and try to stay six feet apart from each other when possible.

Greaney said band and chorus rehearsals take place outdoors, and the district installed canopies visible from the streets to shelter students from the sun and rain.

Likewise, teachers ensure all participants wear higher grade masks continuously, and staff can furnish them with N95 and KN 95 masks if they request them, even though the more expensive coverings had been supplied only for employees.

“It’s been a very busy week, with rules changing every day,” Greaney added. “Sports follow weekly health protocols, and we follow state and county protocols.”


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