By Alfredo Santana
DOWNEY — A small number of COVID-19 infections among students at Downey High School and alleged crowded classrooms among middle and high school students in Lynwood have raised concerns from a student advocate about the safety of returning to in-person classes as area school districts reopened to students this month. The Downey Unified School District reported six confirmed COVID-19 cases among students at Downey High School in the last two weeks. District protocols call for immediate isolation of the infected, contacting parents to arrange fast student pickup and visits to a health care provider to determine the gravity of the illness, and quarantine if the illness does not require hospitalization.
Downey High is the most populated school within the district, with 2,085 registered students and 90 staff members. Data posted on the district’s website indicates the infection rate was 0.002%.
Downey Superintendent John Garcia announced a vaccination clinic would take place Aug. 26 at Downey High and encouraged all school staff and students 12 years and older to get vaccinated if they have not done so.
In addition, the district followed the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health order for all staff and students to wear facial coverings outdoors at all campuses unless they are eating or drinking. Only 10% of the student population is enrolled in virtual learning, Garcia said.
“Our mask mandate has been revised,” Garcia said, noting that residents could find updated protocols on the district’s webpage.
On a video posted last week, Garcia instructed parents, students and staff to visit the district’s COVID-19 dashboard to find the most recent information on confirmed cases and schools affected. Indoor classes at Downey Unified started Aug. 11.
Students advocate and Parents-U-Turn founder Mary Johnson said that, unlike the Los Angeles Unified School District, neither Downey nor Lynwood Unified offer weekly COVID-19 tests for students and staff, classrooms do not have fresh air circulation and many students lack desks with pexiglass for protection from airborne particles.
She filed a complaint with the county Department of Public Health to address alleged oversized classrooms at the relocated Lynwood High School and Hosler Middle School, and for “lack of daily cleaning after each class and sharing of temperature devices between classrooms.”
Laura Aguayo, a clerk with the county Department of Public Health’s division of housing and institutions, said the county does not regulate COVID-19 tests for school districts and inspectors only follow up on individual complaints filed by the public on cafeteria and food handling.
“We only check on issues of mice and rodents,” Aguayo said.
If parents or any other stakeholders detect problems with air conditioning units not running or not filtering dirty air well, they should contact the pertinent city’s building and safety department to resolve the issue, Aguayo said.
Nonetheless, social distancing should be kept all the time at six feet apart whenever possible between students and staff, she said.
Lynwood Unified School District Public Information Officer Jahmal Corner said county inspectors have visited the district’s facilities as they have done it with other districts, and addressed potential safety and health problems with COVID-19.
“Our superintendent has been in contact with [public health officers], and I can tell you all those issues are being handled well,” Corner said.
Corner said Lynwood Superintendent Gudiel Crosthwaite holds meetings with parents and district members on Facebook every Wednesday to discuss proper safety protocols on COVID-19 for students and staff.
Public School Review reported that for the 2021 school year, Lynwood Unified has 14,171 students enrolled, while 21,888 are enrolled in Downey Unified.
Since Aug.19, the official start date for fall classes at Lynwood Unified, the district has not reported a single confirmed case of COVID-19.
Students in both school districts are required to answer a daily health screening and submit it online early morning to get clearance for in-person sessions. If they are symptomatic, the software tells them to stay at home and reach out to teachers or assistants for assignments.
The Downey district has advised students to answer their health questionnaire with a personal computer or laptop, as the district negotiates a software program compatible with phone companies to be phased in later this year.
Both district have posted in their respective online sites that all students are screened for body temperature before they are allowed to enter classrooms.
On the staff front, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Aug. 10 requiring COVID-19 inoculations for all K-12 public and private school employees, or they must undergo weekly antivirus tests.
The mandate followed heightened concerns voiced by health officials to protect adults, adolescents 12 years and older and children at risk of catching the overly aggressive Delta variant of COVID.
A safety protocol at Lynwood Unified indicates that stable groups of 12 to 14 students are assigned two staff members to minimize daily contact with other people, and they stay six feet away from each inside the classrooms.
Similarly to Downey’s, Lynwood Unified developed a test, trace and isolate protocol for students and staff who may experience COVID-19 symptoms. Nurses keep the sick inside insular medical units and call relatives for immediate pickup and transportation to a clinic or hospital, followed by a 10-day quarantine.
Hand disinfectant containers are available in all classrooms. Additional hygiene protocols include washing hands with soap for 20 seconds and avoiding sharing food, drinks and utensils.
The Lynwood Unified School District has 12 elementary schools, two middle schools, three high schools and one adult school.
In Downey, a protocol brochure tells parents and students that anyone testing positive for COVID-19 should isolate at least 10 days after the test and until cough, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, fever or any other symptoms vanish, to avoid spreading the virus.
None of the 13 Downey elementary schools has reported contagions, and seven of the eight secondary schools reported zero infections.
Data from the dashboard also shows that none of the six Downey school district operational facilities had been hit with COVID-19 transmissions.
Middle and high school students at both districts are assigned to wipe their desks twice daily, at beginning of classes and before exit, and can ask for plexiglass shielded desks to stay better protected. The county’s public health department ordered all school attendants to don facemasks covering mouth and noses indoors and outdoors.
Janitors and staff sanitize high traffic areas, tables and benches before and after breakfast and lunch breaks. They also clean doorknobs, handles, light and cover switches, elevators and bathrooms after each session.
Mark Milton, director of food services at Downey Unified, said the district provides nutritious free and touchless meals to all students in synch with both California and the county’s Public Health Departments.