If you’re the type of parent who prefers to drive your children to school, there was no better place to be last school year than Los Angeles.
There’s probably no better place to be right now.
During the first week back from this year’s Christmas break, as the hyper-transmissible Omicron variant was peaking nationwide, more than 7% of public schools in the United States (7,164 schools in total) had to close or go virtual due to the high number of sick students and staff.
According to the most recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, a startling 25% of Americans reported that COVID closed schools in their community in December or January. The issue is not novel. During last summer’s Delta wave, tens of thousands of students and staff were sent home to quarantine in hot spots such as Florida, Texas, and Tennessee, and more than 2,200 schools nationwide had to cancel in-person instruction. By October, nearly one-quarter of all parents (23 percent) reported that Delta had forced their own children to miss school.
Despite this, not a single school in America’s second-largest public-school system — the vast, 640,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — was forced to close during either surge.
Experts say the reason is simple: LAUSD has done more than any other district in the country to keep students in school by keeping COVID out.
The district’s foresight continued this week with the announcement that all students and staff would be required to upgrade from cloth masks to surgical masks (or better) in order to further stem in-school transmission — and that, as a result of this additional protection, anyone exposed to the virus on campus would no longer be automatically quarantined at home.
Similarly, despite educating 12 percent of the nation’s students, California as a whole accounted for only 0.3 percent of the nation’s school closures by the start of winter break. “It is clear from our maps, both the January-only and cumulative maps on our tracker page, that California has had less disruptions than most other states,” says Dennis Roche of the statistics firm Burbio, which tracks pandemic school trends.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures and re-openings have sparked political conflict. However, by the time life-saving vaccines became widely available last spring, most Americans, regardless of their politics, had come to the conclusion that kids need to be in school, in person, as much as possible. As a result, the topic shifted.
While districts from Detroit to Milwaukee to Cleveland to Newark, New Jersey struggled to secure and administer tests during the Omicron surge — and then canceled or delayed classes as a result — LAUSD became the nation’s only major school system to routinely test every single student and staffer on campus every single week.
While officials in Arizona, Iowa, and elsewhere spent a portion of their $190 billion in federal COVID relief undermining local mask requirements and upgrading sports facilities — and were then forced to close schools, call in the National Guard, or appeal to parents to fill in when scores of teachers called in sick with Omicron — LAUSD installed MERV-13 air filters across 80 million square feet of school buildings and strengthened its pool of 3,500 substitutes.
However, they didn’t get to meet in person until regular classes resumed on a half-day schedule in April 2021 — more than a year after the start of the pandemic in the United States, and months after students in other states and cities had already returned for the full-time instruction.
To summarize, reopening schools in California was not the quick fix that some politicians and pundits now claim it should have been. It was a vexing systemic snarl with no clear villains. California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, has been pushing for school re-openings to begin months earlier, in the fall of 2020, despite being the type of cautious progressive that Republicans like DeSantis despise.