By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent
At a special meeting last Friday, the Laguna Beach School Board discussed mandating testing and directing staff to further investigate the District’s options to require students to get tested after 21 positive COVID cases and 44 students and staff quarantined.
“My biggest concern is for the health and safety of the children, and that there’d be no interruption of on-site learning,” Board Member James Kelly said. “I think that it is so important that we look at those two issues, that we really want the kids in the schools and to have a successful year. And as one parent had talked about, we don’t want any fatalities, and we have done such a great job so far with this.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District currently requires all students and district employees to be tested weekly to return to campuses regardless of vaccination status. Long Beach Unified School District requires that all unvaccinated students be tested for COVID. The Santa Ana Unified School District is also looking to offer free COVID-19 tests to all students, parents, and staff upon request.
Member Kelly Osborne pointed out that Santa Ana and LA Unified have a different demographic base than Laguna Beach.
“They have high rates of obesity, they have other socio-cultural factors that are making their population at a much higher risk level than we have in Laguna Beach, especially for poor outcomes of COVID for children,” Osborne said. “So I appreciate that they’re doing it, but I can’t always take what they’re doing and apply it to who we are locally representing.”
The Board discussed the possibility of having students test at home and submit results on test day to minimize the amount of class time taken up, but concluded that it would be an added logistical challenge to compile test results.
Members James Kelly and Board President Carol Normandin favored getting more information about what testing regularly would look like “… knowing that once they start doing it regularly, the time frame of implementation decreases greatly,” said President Carol Normandin. “And then if they’re doing it regularly, they would more likely end up hiring someone who would facilitate a lot of it, so it wasn’t staff time, using the contract we already have.”
Osborne was in favor of testing around school breaks before students return to campus. Member Jan Vickers pointed out that additional data was needed in order for the Board to make a decision, but was generally against mandating testing. Member Dee Perry was in favor of getting information on what baseline testing would look like and what help that information might offer.
Osborne also discussed ramping up communications with families to emphasize the importance of testing as an alternative to a mandate.
“Knowing that we already had 2,000 kits picked up, as a percentage of our student population, that is quite high,” Osborne said. “You know, there could be other ways without mandating it to increase participation.”
Testing students at the start of the school year helps the Board get a baseline understanding of where the District stands in terms of COVID exposure.
“What it would do is essentially provide you a starting point of where you’re currently at, in terms of date and time of these many students are positive,” Superintendent Jason Viloria said. “Beyond that, you know, and as some speakers pointed out, two days later, you can have more positives, and you wouldn’t know who those students are because you’re not testing those students, so it really is simply a point in time.”
Resident Kevin McCarthy spoke out against mandatory regular testing. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to mandate a vaccine for an age group that has a 99.98% survival rate,” McCarthy said. “And I think it sends a strong message to students, rather than an open and free scholastic environment. And I also don’t believe we’ve had any fatalities in the school system since COVID started going back in February. So I think it should remain voluntary.”
Some parents felt that requiring only the students who have not been vaccinated to get tested might isolate those students. Resident Brandy Rosenberg commented that students might become ostracized for not being vaccinated.
“If you’re going to test one, you need to test all 3,000 and the entire staff,” Rosenberg said.
While board members discussed how younger students might feel discouraged if they struggle to produce enough spit for the PCR saliva tests, parent Payal Avellan said her son thinks the tests are fun.
“It’s like a science experiment for him,” Avellan said. “Students who don’t comply should be subject to wearing masks outdoors in addition to indoors and should be otherwise held to the modified quarantine standards.”
Parent Sheri Morgan pointed out that the District has added ventilation and voluntary testing as added safety measures against the spread of COVID. “You have protocols when students who go home with lice before they are allowed to come back into the school, they have to be checked,” Morgan said. “So if you have students that stay home that have symptoms of COVID, it seems that it would be a wiser decision to take the protocol that you have in place and expand the strength of it. Require testing to come back if a student goes home sick.”
The District continues to provide testing kits to students, Viloria explained.
The Board directed staff to bring back information on what the testing process would look like, the time it would take, and the cost to the District with the hope of gathering baseline data on exposure. At the next meeting on Sept. 9, the Board will consider voting based on the information staff provides.