LOS ANGELES - As Los Angeles Unified students continue to learn in virtual classrooms, the superintendent reiterated Monday that "any return to schools is not without risk" during the pandemic and no decision has been made on when campuses will reopen.
"The dizzying changes in guidelines and pronouncements by health authorities over the past many months haven't changed the basic facts about COVID-19," LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said. "It's a highly contagious and deadly disease. We're going to be careful and we're going to be deliberate about bringing students back to schools."
LAUSD's schools closed in March and transitioned to distance learning for all 700,000 students, with Beutner emphasizing that the district must avoid "schools turning into a petri dish" with the potential for students and staff contracting the virus and spreading it among their peers and family members.
Although the decline in new coronavirus cases in California has resulted in 25 counties -- including San Diego and Orange counties -- setting dates to reopen schools in the coming weeks, Beutner said Los Angeles County's rate remains too high for students to return to the classroom anytime soon.
"Let's be clear, it's not an issue of desire, we all want students back in classrooms, but the decision must be based on science and it has to be right," he said. "Careful and deliberate is just that. Don't expect to see a decision about a return to school classrooms by students until the case rate in the area is significantly lower and remains there."
County public health director Barbara Ferrer told local education officials last week that schools are unlikely to reopen in the county until at least November.
While distance learning continues with mostly virtual instruction -- as well as some one-on-one tutoring and on-campus childcare for roughly 3,000 children of the district's essential workers -- district officials are preparing for students' eventual return.
LAUSD is revamping cleaning standards, installing air filtration systems, ordering personal protective equipment and reorganizing classrooms, in addition to rolling out a system for testing students, staff and family members for the virus.
"Over the next several weeks, all staff and students will be provided with an initial, baseline test," Beutner said. "We will also provide testing for household members of students or staff who test positive for the virus or those who show symptoms. ... Once we're closer to the time when students might return to classrooms, there will be a second round of baseline testing for all."
Since last Thursday, the district tested more than 2,500 staff members and their children each day with plans to soon test 20,000 people each day. The district has the capacity to eventually test up to 40,000 per day.
Of the 5,400 people tested last week on Thursday and Friday, five people -- or 0.1% -- tested positive for the virus, the district reported.
The district's plan is to directly contact anyone who tests positive for the virus or may have come in contact with an individual in their school cohort. LAUSD also plans inform the public about any occurrences at schools.
LAUSD Board of Education member Monica Garcia said the testing and contact tracing effort by the district "is modeling a new standard in creating conditions for learning in 2020." She said, "We must be learners and leaders."
Board member Nick Melvoin said he's proud of the way LAUSD continues to innovate in the crisis.
District leaders emphasized that the effort is an enormous and unprecedented undertaking, and they anticipate there will be challenges.
"No other school district in the country has put together an effort like this," Beutner said.
Until students are able to return, Beutner said he remains grateful for the teachers and staff who are continuing to increase student engagement online and adapt to virtual classrooms. The district is reporting that 98% of students are now connected with their schools.
"I want to give a special shout-out to classroom teachers who, in addition to planning lessons, teaching Zoom classes and providing support to students throughout the crisis, have taken on the task of helping students navigate technology issues, power outages and the like, all with a smile," he said. "Thank you for your commitment to students."