This article was originally published in the Glendale News-Press on Aug. 14
Unvaccinated teachers and other employees of the Glendale Unified School District will be required to undergo weekly testing for the coronavirus when the school year begins Wednesday, the school board decided this week.
Employees who can provide proof of their vaccination to the district will be exempt from mandatory testing, though they will still be encouraged to take tests periodically even if just for surveillance purposes. The GUSD Board of Education made the decision this week amid a COVID-19 surge being driven by the virus’ Delta variant.
District Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and the school board took action ahead of an announcement by Gov. Gavin Newsom this past Wednesday that all grade school educators in the state — public and private — must be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. On Friday, the Los Angeles Unified School District went a step further and issued a strict vaccination mandate for its employees effective Oct. 15.
For now, GUSD teachers also will be required to wear face masks while indoors — those with medical exemptions will instead have to wear a face shield with a drape and be tested at least twice a week, regardless of vaccination status. Similarly, students with mask exemptions will be required to wear the shield and drape but will have the option of testing. Those students pointedly are not to be excluded from usual class activities.
Students who refuse to wear face masks without an exemption will be required to enroll in the district’s online-based independent study program. The district, which committed to a full in-person return to classes for this school year, is not offering the hybrid teaching model it used last year.
All visitors to campus will be required to show they are vaccinated against coronavirus or have tested negative within 48 hours of the visit. Regardless, the district is formally discouraging nonessential campus visits right now.
“We are going to be welcoming of our parents, because we know there are students who have never been on campus — [transitional kindergarten] students or kindergarten students — but all of that will be guided very carefully by the administrations at the school sites,” Ekchian said. “We will ask them to wear masks on campus and it will be an organized and carefully structured opportunity for parents to get to know our campuses better. We are discouraging additional visitations or activities at this time because we have made a commitment to maintain the greatest level of safety at our school sites.”
Board member Jennifer Freemon, a teacher in the LAUSD, wondered if Newsom might rule on whether visitors are allowed to visit campuses.
“I am not comfortable with us having non-vaccinated adults on our elementary campuses, period,” she said.
The district will continue to maintain a dashboard on its website showing results from coronavirus tests given at campuses and school sites and indicating whether an infected person was exposed to the virus there or exposed others to infection. Cases in which a student or teacher tested positive but was not found to be associated with any exposure on a campus will not be included.
School board members — perhaps conscious of kids who come to school despite having a cold — are asking families to adhere to an honor system when they suspect their child might have picked up the coronavirus.
“Please do not give them Tylenol and send them to school,” board member Armina Gharpetian said. “Ultimately, our responsibility is to stop transmission, but parents and families play a huge role in this. If a family member tests positive, inform the school. At this point, we’ve gone through this for a year and a half, and transparency plays a huge role in stopping the transmission.”
Though the district plans for and expects the school year to be a return to normalcy — notwithstanding the use of masks — officials stressed that they anticipate that the continuing fluidity of coronavirus spread will have an impact.
“I know we’re going to see surges in cases and we’re going to see declines,” Freemon said. “Hopefully, as people continue to get vaccinated, those surges will become smaller and less, and hopefully we can then get those younger kids vaccinated. I think we’re going to see classes have to quarantine. I think we’re going to see that we are going to be inconvenienced by COVID throughout the school year.”
Freemon added that she and her husband, a fellow educator, fully expect to experience that inconvenience because not all of their children can be vaccinated right now.
“We’re trying to figure out what happens not ‘if’ one of our kids has to quarantine, but ‘when,’” she said. “I would encourage other families to start having those conversations and think about it, because I think at least for the fall, it’s probably going to be the reality for a bit. I don’t think that’s necessarily a failure. I think it’s just nationally where we’re at with COVID and it’s where L.A. County is with COVID. “
Board President Shant Sahakian, who for the first time this year will have a child in the school system, echoed Freemon’s sentiments and said he shared the mix of excitement and anxiety that other parents are likely experiencing. He reiterated his support for reopening schools this year.
“We know that that is the most ideal and best way to learn for most of our students — not necessarily all of our students; each of our students learn in unique ways,” he added. “But we collectively as a community and a school district have to root for every child, whether that child is going to be on campus, whether that child is going to be in independent study, whether that child, at some point, is going to transition between the two.”