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Declining child coronavirus cases indicate generally safe school reopenings in L.A. County

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The early weeks of fully opened schools throughout Los Angeles County have coincided with declining pediatric coronavirus cases, the first indication that campuses are generally operating safely without a troubling number of outbreaks.

Citing the low number of school coronavirus outbreaks, districts in L.A. County will no longer be required to send unvaccinated students home to quarantine if they come in contact with an individual who tests positive and if they have met certain safety conditions, Department of Public Health officials announced Thursday.

Over the last three weeks, coronavirus cases declined across all pediatric age groups by about 40%, according to L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

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“This is promising, since it’s occurring as students are going back to school,” she said during a briefing. “So we’re hopeful, with continued close attention to those school-based strategies that reduce the risk of exposure, we’ll continue to see these lower case rates across all age groups.”

The county has also recently observed downticks in hospitalization rates for children, and Ferrer said that “if our case rates don’t increase, we do anticipate a stabilization or even small declines among pediatric hospitalizations.”

From Aug. 15 through Monday, 7,995 cases were reported among K-12 students countywide, with another 1,193 reported among staff. Given that there are more than 1.5 million students in this grade range, as well as 175,000 K-12 staff, that means roughly 0.5% of the student body and about 0.7% of the workforce has tested positive since the school year began.

“This is just slightly higher than the 0.4% rate of infection we experienced overall in the county,” Ferrer said. “And, given the massive testing of asymptomatic individuals at schools, this very low rate of infection affirms the safety that’s provided to students and staff on their campuses.”

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The revised quarantine policy allows the county’s 80 school districts to adopt a more relaxed policy generally aligned with state guidelines designed to keep students in class. Until now, the county policy was stricter than the state’s.

Under modified quarantine practices, if an unvaccinated student is identified as having close contact with an infected individual, and both were masked during the duration of their exposure, the student can remain in class if they are asymptomatic, continue to properly wear a face mask and undergo testing twice a week.

However, unvaccinated exposed students can’t participate in extracurricular activities, including sports, during the modified quarantine period, and they should be tested five days after being exposed.

Vaccinated students do not need to be quarantined unless they show symptoms of illness. Nonetheless, it is still recommended that vaccinated students exposed to someone with a confirmed coronavirus infection get tested five days following exposure.

Children age 11 and younger are not eligible to be vaccinated.

“We feel comfortable that with relatively low transmission at schools, it’s appropriate to offer schools a modified quarantine option for K-12 students exposed to COVID at schools,” Ferrer said during a news conference.

Ferrer said school districts are not required to adopt the policy, and they should make sure they have the resources necessary to investigate cases.

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“You have to be super careful that you know for sure and are able to verify that close contacts to cases had only mask-on-mask exposure,” Ferrer said.

There may be situations in which it will be difficult for school officials to determine whether a student with a confirmed coronavirus infection, and that child’s classmates, were fully masked for the entire duration of the time they had contact with each other.

“It gets complicated when students are doing other activities together, particularly eating lunch or enjoying a recess, where they’re often outdoors and maybe taking off their mask,” Ferrer said. If either the infected person or the unvaccinated exposed person was unmasked during the period they were in close contact, the exposed person would be sent home to quarantine.

Close contact is defined as a situation in which a person has been within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes in one day.

The relaxed quarantine policy can only be used in situations in which officials have not detected an outbreak, defined by linked cases involving three or more people in which transmission probably occurred at schools or school activities.

If an outbreak has been detected, unvaccinated students who are identified as close contacts will be required to follow the standard quarantine procedure and be sent home for at least eight days.

The relaxed, modified quarantine policy does not apply to teachers and staff, meaning that school employees who are still not vaccinated but come in close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus would be required to be sent home for at least eight days.

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The L.A. Unified School District has required all teachers and staff to be vaccinated by Oct. 15. However, not all school districts may have a similar policy. California’s policy has only ordered that state school employees either be vaccinated or submit to a weekly coronavirus test. Last week, L.A. Unified ordered that all children 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by January to enter campus, the first such mandate among the nation’s largest school systems.

Ferrer said the modified quarantine policy is meant to ensure students’ learning is disrupted as little as possible.

It was not immediately known if LAUSD will adopt the relaxed quarantine policy as districts throughout the county were assessing their new option.

The Alhambra Unified School District, for one, does not plan to adopt it.

Supt. Denise R. Jaramillo said the district’s current quarantine policy is working very well so far.

“We have a high community vaccination rate, a low case rate, a robust and motivated team of contact tracers, and a seamless, high-quality virtual program for students who must quarantine,” Jaramillo said. The district launched weekly testing this week for all students regardless of vaccination status, and out of 3,000 tests, identified three positive cases.

The modified quarantine policy will require more vigilance and resources than the district has available, Jaramillo said.

“With teachers already tasked with manifold responsibilities for 25 or more students per class, this added vigilance is asking more than we have staff to affirm,” she said.

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