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Widespread testing, contract tracing is needed to reopen LA schools, says superintendent

“We closed school facilities on March 13th so our schools did not become a petri dish and cause the virus to spread in the communities we serve. We do not want to reverse that in a hasty return to schools,” said Superintendent Austin Beutner

The nation’s second-largest school district will not reopen campuses without widespread coronavirus testing and contract tracing for students and employees, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner said on Monday, April 27.

The edict came six weeks after the district closed all of its nearly 600 schools and launched remote learning and food aid distribution in hopes of thwarting the spread of COVID-19, alongside stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns.

“We closed school facilities on March 13 so our schools did not become a petri dish and cause the virus to spread in the communities we serve. That has worked. We do not want to reverse that in a hasty return to schools,” said Beutner, echoing overtures of local health officials.

Beutner called for a “robust” system of testing and contract tracing before schools could even begin reopening. Though details of what reopened schools would look like were not provided, the return would be “a gradual process with a schedule and school day that may be different.”

“Our 75,000-plus employees serve the needs of almost 700,000 students who live with another couple of million people. Will testing be available for all of these individuals and who will pay for it? This is the sort of challenge which lies ahead.”

In the Monday address, Beutner also said the district made gains connecting to students online as the vast majority of teachers completed 10 hours of distance learning training.

About 70% of elementary age students at the district have electronic devices and have connected to their teachers online, a 5% jump from last week. Since late March, the number of disconnected high schoolers reported by the district dropped from 15,000 to some 2,500.

The district is also taking advantage of students being off campus to accelerate school repairs and upgrades like kitchen upgrades, roof repair or outdoor play areas — projects that Beutner said have employed an additional 300 workers.

Last week, the district said it had incurred $200 million in emergency costs responding to the pandemic including food aid distribution via its large and growing “Grab and Go” meals program, and procurements of laptops or wifi hotspots. Beutner said the district has applied for local, state and federal funding including from the CA Office of Emergency Services and FEMA.

But the district has also sought private help paying for food aid through a new charity effort dubbed LA Students Most in Need. The relief effort for low-income students, Beutner said, has raised some $7 million thanks in part to entertainment leaders like director Chuck Lorre and NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Shell and business executive Tony Pritzker.