Pediatricians, public health officials discuss school safety ahead of the return to in-person learning

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Students not required to be vaccinated but must wear masks indoors

AS the 2021-2022 academic year looms closer, concerns over resuming in-person learning in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to mount across the country.

In Los Angeles County — where the positivity rate of COVID-19 and hospitalizations have dramatically soared over the last month because of the highly contagious delta variant — schools are ramping up efforts to curb the virus before in-person learning returns on Aug. 16.

“It’s important to reassure parents that [vaccines] are a very effective and safe tool against COVID-19,” Dr. Jasmine Eugenio, pediatric senior physician at the LA County Dept. of Health Services, said during a press briefing on Wednesday, Aug. 4.

Eugenio, who is Filipina American, emphasized that parents have an obligation to “help the children understand that these precautions are necessary.”

“I’ve been faced with teenagers who want to go back to school but the parents don’t want them to get vaccinated, and that’s always a quandary. So I encourage the parents to sit with their children and really decide if it’s best to stay home or go to school, and the children know that they want to go back to school,” she said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LA Unified) — the second-largest school district in the country — announced that it would test all students and staff weekly, regardless of vaccination status, beginning Aug. 2. Previously, the district only required testing for those who were unvaccinated, but it changed its guidelines following recommendations from LA County Public Health.

K-12 students and teachers who are medically exempt from wearing a mask will be tested at least twice a week, the county ordered.

Although a majority of students are not yet eligible for any of the COVID-19 vaccines — those under 12 years old are currently not cleared — officials are encouraging anyone who is eligible and will be present on campuses to get their vaccines.

According to county data, about 46% of children between the ages of 12 to 15 have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and 58% of 16 and 17-year-olds have had at least one dose.

Notably, there has also been confusion over whether students are required to be vaccinated in order to attend in-person learning; LA County Office of Education Superintendent Dr. Debra Duardo says they are not.

“Just to clarify issues in LA County, there is not any mandate that requires all students to be vaccinated to attend school; we are requiring that everyone, whether they’re vaccinated or not, wears a mask while indoors,” Duardo said, adding that 80% of educators in the county have been vaccinated and those who aren’t will undergo regular COVID-19 testing.

She added that parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to school may opt to enroll them in virtual learning.

“There was a change in the law that requires all districts to provide what we’re calling independent studies, which is basically an opportunity for those children to continue distance learning,” Duardo explained.

As of Thursday, Aug. 5, the county’s case rate actually dropped to 21.1 new cases per 100,000 residents; last week, the case rate was 24.1 per 100,000. But transmission remains high across the county today compared to the low positivity rates of the early summer.

On Thursday, in addition to reporting 3,672 new cases of COVID-19, the county confirmed 19 new deaths and 1,279 hospitalizations, the latter of which is an increase of 361 people in one week; a vast majority of those hospitalized remain unvaccinated residents.

The numbers are concerning given the fact that many school-age students are unvaccinated, but Dr. Nava Yeganeh, pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical epidemiologist with LA County Public Health, assures that the right protocol will curb transmission.

“This fall will require a joint effort between teachers, staff, parents, and students, and the good news here is that we know this virus well and we have an effective toolkit,” Yeganeh said. (Klarize Medenilla/AJPress)

Klarize Medenilla

Klarize Medenilla is a staff writer and reporter for the Asian Journal. You can reach her at k.medenilla@asianjournalinc.com.

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