The Omicron Semester Began at Los Angeles Schools

Students face big entry lines, but unlike some other districts, the campuses are open

Something miraculous happened Tuesday morning: Hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles Unified School District students returned to campus after a three-week long winter break.

It came with slow-moving lines and frustration, but unlike some other districts across the country, the kids—at least those who tested negative for COVID-19—made it into the classroom.

How long that continues amid a raging Omicron surge remains to be seen.

L.A. Unified, like every entity that brings together anything more than a nuclear family, is dealing with a veritable coronavirus tsunami. In Los Angeles County alone, more than 250,000 new cases were diagnosed in the last week, and that is an undercount, missing out on some people who test positive at home.

The potential for school upheaval was hinted at Monday evening, when LAUSD Interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly appeared in a video sent to district families. She cheerfully talked up the start of the second semester, the safety precautions in place, and the additional district staff who would be dispatched to schools to help out. But she warned, “There may be a few lines at the start of the school day, and longer wait times for buses.”

That came to pass, and was exacerbated by the crash of the district’s screening system. Known as Daily Pass, it requires students and families to fill out some simple online health questions and get a QR code, which is scanned at school entrances. The crush of people all trying to do it around 7 a.m. caused everything to go kaput, and kids had to be checked in with paper lists.

There was grumbling, but it will pass. The first day of school last August produced even longer lines on many campuses. A few days later almost everything was smoothed out and kids breezed through the entrances in seconds.

The rise of Omicron has spurred L.A. Unified to shift policies and tactics. Before the variant emerged, the district was preparing to end its weekly testing of every student and staff member, an astounding effort initiated by former Superintendent Austin Beutner. There was talk of allowing kids to go mask-less outdoors in the new year.

All that has been obliterated, and the rapidly changing situation likely smashed any semblance of winter vacation for district brass and board members. While the kids were off, the LAUSD mandated that everyone test negative before stepping foot on campus. The result was that last week the district buffeted families with entreaties to take either a PCR test—they were available, for free, at school sites—or pick up a free antigen test to take at home, and upload the results (disclosure: I have a seventh grader in a district school. Double disclosure: getting a free test and uploading it was the easiest thing in the world).

To no one’s surprise, L.A. Unified cases are skyrocketing. In the seven-day period from Jan. 4-10, there were 66,000 positive tests among more than 457,000 conducted, a 14.3 percent positivity rate, according to the district’s COVID-19 report card (the L.A. county rate is north of 20 percent). In that ancient era before Omicron—mid-November—the district-wide positivity rate was less than 0.2 percent.

Precisely how many people didn’t make it onto campus was unclear by early Tuesday afternoon. Plans called for students who had not been tested over the break to take rapid antigen tests upon their arrival at school.

If there is anything truly mesmerizing about the current moment, it is that the district never even hinted at returning to remote learning, which any parent can and will you is an educational gulag, a well-intentioned and for a time necessary system that nevertheless manages to suck two happiness points from every child’s soul for each minute they “learn” via Zoom. Everyone decried the 13 months, starting in March 2020, that campuses were closed to students. No one wants that again.

Yet that is not what played out in other places. Chicago public schools were closed for a week as the teachers union fought with the school district over COVID-19 safety protocols. Districts in Milwaukee and Cleveland are among those that have shifted to online learning until the current wave eases. Locally, the Montebello School District opted to push back the start of the new semester from Tuesday to Jan. 18.

The LAUSD has benefitted by keeping things copacetic with the powerful union United Teachers Los Angeles. Various media outlets recently reported that organization President Cecily Myart-Cruz said the district was “in a better position than most others in the country” because of safety infrastructure instituted long ago. That includes universal masking for staff and students, as well as numerous sanitizing measures and the installation of top-notch air filtration systems at all schools.

Still, there is a sense of worry. The high transmissibility of Omicron raises the possibility of the virus rampaging through teachers and students who spends hours in classrooms. Even if many people suffer only minor symptoms, those with a positive test are required to stay home for at least five days, and longer if symptoms persist. The variant’s ability to cause breakthrough cases in people who have been vaccinated and boosted raises the possibility of substitute teachers galore.

In other words, for the LAUSD the present is known and the situation is somewhat under control. But as with everything else tied to the coronavirus, it is impossible to say what happens next.

Want the Daily Brief in your inbox? Sign up for our newsletters today.