Los Angeles Times

School quarantine policy eased

L.A. County says lower case rates mean districts can be less restrictiv­e

- By Melissa Gomez, Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money

The early weeks of fully opened Los Angeles County schools have coincided with declining pediatric coronaviru­s cases, the first indication campuses are generally operating safely without a troubling number of outbreaks.

Citing the low number of coronaviru­s outbreaks in schools, public health officials on Thursday announced that schools in L.A. County will no longer be automatica­lly required to send unvaccinat­ed students home to quarantine for at least seven days after their last contact with an individual who tests positive.

Over the last three weeks, coronaviru­s cases declined across all pediatric age groups by about 40%,

according to L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

“This is promising, since it’s occurring as students are going back to school,” she said during a briefing Thursday. “So we’re hopeful, with continued close attention to those school-based strategies that reduce the risk of exposure, we’ll continue to see these lower case rates across all age groups.”

The county has also recently observed downticks in hospitaliz­ation rates for children, and Ferrer said that “if our case rates don’t increase, we do anticipate a stabilizat­ion or even small declines among pediatric hospitaliz­ations.”

California has directed districts to require masking indoors in K-12 schools, a move at odds with states such as Florida and Texas, whose governors banned school officials from enforcing mask mandates. Texas’ attorney general is suing several districts that have attempted to require masks, while Florida’s governor has threatened to withhold state funding from school boards that attempt to do the same.

The differing policies could be a reason behind the vast difference­s in pediatric outcomes among children: Florida and Texas have reported records in new pediatric hospitaliz­ations for COVID-19 in the wake of a summer surge caused by the Delta variant, while California remained below the levels of its winter surge.

Florida’s rate of new daily pediatric COVID-19 hospitaliz­ation is now six times worse than California’s, while Texas’ is four times worse. The national rate is three times as worse as California’s, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Los Angeles’ approach to universal coronaviru­s testing is also increasing­ly seen as a safety model nationwide. The Los Angeles Unified School District launched an ambitious coronaviru­s testing program, which requires the screening of every student, teacher and staff member — more than half a million people — once a week for the foreseeabl­e future. The district also requires students and staff to wear masks outdoors.

Neighborin­g districts also have expanded safety protocols: The Alhambra Unified School District this week began testing students, and Pasadena Unified, which had been only ordering limited testing, is now testing all students regularly.

Last week, the Biden administra­tion called “on all schools to set up regular testing in their schools for students, teachers, and staff consistent with CDC guidance,” which suggests unvaccinat­ed students and teachers be regularly tested for the virus.

Coronaviru­s cases have remained relatively low among K-12 students countywide as students began returning to campus in mid-August.

From Aug. 15 through Monday, 7,995 cases were reported among K-12 students countywide, with an additional 1,193 reported among staff. Given that there are about 1.5 million students in this grade range, as well as 175,000 K-12 staff, that means roughly 0.5% of the student body and about 0.7% of the workforce have tested positive since the school year began, Ferrer said.

“This is just slightly higher than the 0.4% rate of infection we experience­d overall in the county,” Ferrer said. “And, given the massive testing of asymptomat­ic individual­s at schools, this very low rate of infection affirms the safety that’s provided to students and staff on their campuses.”

There were eight coronaviru­s outbreaks in K-12 settings last week countywide, up from six the previous week.

“The number of outbreaks happening at schools really is unusually low,” Ferrer said Thursday.

The revised quarantine policy allows the county’s 80 school districts to adopt a more relaxed policy generally aligned with state guidelines designed to keep students in class. Until now, the county policy was stricter than the state’s.

The revised policy allows a so-called modified quarantine, permitting an unvaccinat­ed student exposed to an infected person to remain in the classroom under certain conditions while the student is tested twice over a weeklong period to see if an infection has developed.

The student, however, will still be ordered to remain at home at all other times except for classroom instructio­n, having to sit out extracurri­cular activities, including sports.

An unvaccinat­ed student who had close contact with an infected person qualifies for the modified quarantine only if both were masked for the duration of the exposure.

The unvaccinat­ed student must also remain asymptomat­ic and continue to properly wear a face mask — not only indoors, as is normally required, but also outdoors. Close contact occurs when a person has been within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes in one day.

The modified quarantine can end on the seventh day after exposure if the second test shows the student has not been infected.

The relaxed quarantine policy can only be used in situations in which officials have not detected a school outbreak. If an outbreak has been detected, unvaccinat­ed students who are identified as close contacts will be required to follow the standard quarantine procedure and be sent home for at least seven days from their last contact with the infected person.

Vaccinated students do not need to be quarantine­d as long as they remain healthy. Nonetheles­s, it is still recommende­d that vaccinated students exposed to someone with a coronaviru­s infection get tested five days after the exposure. Children age 11 and younger are not eligible to be vaccinated.

Ferrer said school districts are not required to adopt the policy, and they should make sure they have the resources necessary to investigat­e cases. “You have to be super careful that you know for sure and are able to verify that close contacts to cases had only mask-on-mask exposure,” she said.

There may be situations in which it will be difficult for school officials to determine whether a student with a confirmed coronaviru­s infection and that child’s classmates were fully masked for the duration of the time they had contact with each other.

“It gets complicate­d when students are doing other activities together, particular­ly eating lunch or enjoying a recess, where they’re often outdoors and maybe taking off their mask,” Ferrer said.

The relaxed, modified quarantine policy does not apply to teachers and staff, meaning that school employees who are still not vaccinated but come in close contact with an infected person would be sent home for 10 days after the last known contact with the infected person.

The L.A. Unified School District has required all teachers and staff to be vaccinated by Oct. 15. But many other districts have not followed suit. California’s rules require that public and private K-12 school employees either be vaccinated or submit to a weekly coronaviru­s test. Last week, L.A. Unified ordered that all children 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by January to enter campus, the first such mandate among the nation’s largest school systems.

Los Angeles Unified officials did not respond to questions about whether the district would adopt the modified quarantine. They are in negotiatio­ns with the teachers union over safety measures. Earlier this month, the teachers union was seeking to expand quarantine practices to everyone on campus, including fully vaccinated employees and students, if they have been in close contact with an infected person.

“Quarantini­ng has proven to be an effective mitigation strategy to keep our schools safe and open,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz. “Health and safety must come first to protect everyone who walks through our classroom doors, including children too young to be vaccinated.”

Myart-Cruz did not comment directly on whether she favored or opposed the new county policy on quarantine­s.

 ?? Christina House Los Angeles Times ?? LUCAS SUN, left, and Vito Hsu attend class at First Avenue Middle School in Arcadia this month. Pediatric virus cases are declining in L.A. County, data show.
Christina House Los Angeles Times LUCAS SUN, left, and Vito Hsu attend class at First Avenue Middle School in Arcadia this month. Pediatric virus cases are declining in L.A. County, data show.
 ?? Al Seib Los Angeles Times ?? AMBER WHITE, left, drops off son Ryder at Lankershim Elementary in August. Low virus case rates will allow districts to adopt relaxed quarantine policies.
Al Seib Los Angeles Times AMBER WHITE, left, drops off son Ryder at Lankershim Elementary in August. Low virus case rates will allow districts to adopt relaxed quarantine policies.

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