First published in the Jan. 15 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
The Glendale Unified School District said 85% of its students returned to classes Monday, following a winter break in which families were asked to attest that their children had received negative COVID-19 test results in order to return to school.
An additional 4% of students participated in school via independent study, according to Superintendent Vivian Ekchian. As a response to the Omicron wave of the pandemic — which has produced more than 40,000 confirmed new cases per day in Los Angeles County multiple times in the past two weeks — GUSD officials made the test screening a part of the daily attendance application for students. To pass the check-in period, a student had to attest to have taken a COVID-19 test within the past week and received a negative result.
“Our attendance was higher than we expected,” Ekchian said in an interview Thursday. “The kids were really happy to be back, and parents were pleased to bring them.”
The district’s various testing sites regularly filled up last week through the weekend, with some parents posting on social media having waited hours before their turn. According to GUSD, there were 13,757 rapid tests and 4,765 PCR tests given to students and staff members at its sites from Jan. 3-10, producing a 7.9% positivity rate among the group.
The decision to require the negative test was made by the GUSD board in a special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 4, shortly after the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health had outlined various new guidelines for the return to school in light of the Omicron wave. Although not requiring it, the county did advise districts on how to go about testing mandates — an option that GUSD ultimately picked up. Outside of school sites, families were free to obtain tests elsewhere, and there was no preference between rapid and PCR tests.
Ekchian said the district’s testing provider offered rapid and PCR tests through Friday, and made a guarantee that those with positive test results from a Friday PCR test would be notified by Sunday, though she acknowledged that there were some such families who were still being notified Monday morning. The district switched strictly to rapid tests Saturday and opened up rapid testing Sunday to accommodate more students. Additional rapid testing, specifically for returning to school, continued Monday.
The decision did elicit derision by some families because the district did not require documentation as proof for those using alternative sites or at home tests — a respondent simply had to answer a query. At the time, GUSD officials said this was at the advisement of county public health.
“What really was the nail in the coffin for me and my husband this week was the self-report option,” said Dorothy O’Connor, an R.D. White Elementary School mother who reached out to the News-Press. “It was just a question, and it really upset me because anyone can say anything, and there actually were some parents online saying ‘Just lie. I’m not going to stand in those lines, that’s ridiculous. I’m just going to mark that they’re fine.’ While we believe most parents will do testing for their child, you never know.”
Speaking Thursday, Ekchian said the “honor system” was built into the district’s goal of building trusting relationships with families, by asking them to take a test and report the results honestly.
“We believe in our community and know they will make the right decision. Therefore, self-attestation, which is in line with the department of public health, was appropriate,” she said. “That’s why the self-attestation is so important.”
O’Connor, who is a teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said she brought her child to the main GUSD office for a rapid test on Wednesday, Jan. 5, in hopes to beat the rush and waited around 80 minutes. In driving past the office for various errands since then, she said she’d observed lines stretching around the block and had heard from friends that they waited from three to four hours at other sites.
“My experience was actually mild,” she said. “It was pretty bad, in my opinion.”
Shant Sahakian, president of the GUSD Board of Education, acknowledged the long waits in an interview and said that district administration did everything in its power to make free testing available to the populace. In addition to GUSD staffers and those from the testing company, the Glendale Fire Department and other city employees also assisted.
“We recognize the inconvenience and the challenges of the long lines,” he said, “but I know the district team was working around the clock to open up as many sites at schools as possible to make sure we open in the safest way possible.”
One hiccup that would exacerbate GUSD’s testing goal was that the state’s supply of at-home tests scheduled to arrive prior to winter breaks only just arrived this week. Students were sent home Thursday and Friday with two at-home rapid tests this week, and were advised to take them Monday before returning Tuesday. (Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday.) GUSD, using COVID-19 relief funding, also procured at-home molecular tests this week for all of its employees to take before Tuesday.
Additionally, Ekchian said, testing is a statewide issue right now, largely thanks to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant. She felt that GUSD — which has administered nearly 98,000 tests since August — had achieved a great deal by getting more than 18,500 tested within an eight-day window.
“There is a higher amount of testing demanded than the state can provide,” Ekchian said. “As the third-largest school district in L.A. County, I think we’ve done a really significant job of improving health and safety in Glendale.”
Weekly optional testing for students and staff resumed Monday during the day, with in-season athletes also picking back up their required weekly testing. However, there are parents who believe weekly testing should be a broad mandate for schools here.
“I think the only way to stay on top of the infection is to test, I would say, twice a week and have actual N95 or KN95 masks,” said Dave Anthony, who has a son at Rosemont Middle School. “We have pretty much all the major virologists and epidemiologists saying we should wear N95 or KN95 masks, and that’s just something that was never brought up.”
Anthony said his son took an at-home rapid test and was negative, but still did not return to school until Wednesday this week as a precaution. And that was only because he is both vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.
“If he was younger and wasn’t able to, I don’t know that I would send him back,” said Anthony, adding that he would have enrolled his son in independent study.
O’Connor said she withheld her child, who is also vaccinated, the entire week and is considering, at the suggestion of the principal, at least a short-term independent study. Though fearful of the district’s truancy policy, O’Connor said the low voluntary testing participation gives her more pause.
“My daughter is one of three kids in her class who get tested. R.D. White does not have a lot of kids who get tested,” said O’Connor, who noted LAUSD has mandatory testing. “We wanted and we still want mandatory, not optional, weekly testing.”