As school returns this week for those enrolled in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, officials from the state, county and SMMUSD want to be clear about what health guidelines will be followed by the district.
Admitting it’s been a challenging two-and-a-half-year period educating children during a pandemic Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati also said, “we have learned much about COVID-19 and how to mitigate exposure as well as the impacts Covid may have on a person.”
Therefore, the beginning of the school year will be more normal than it has been in two years. Safety protocols have been relaxed, but safety guidelines are still recommended according to the California and Los Angeles County Departments of Public Health.
To allow schools to function as normally as possible while still adding to the protection of everyone’s health, the district is recommending, but not requiring, COVID-19 vaccinations, the wearing of masks indoors, and regular health screenings and testing. Before students and staff return to campuses Aug. 18, they will be provided with an antigen (rapid) test. A district memo says it is “requesting” that the test be taken confirming a negative result before returning to campus.
“This is what a successful high-functioning, cooperative society looks like,” Drati stated in the memo. Anyone testing positive would be required to isolate at home for a minimum of five days even if asymptomatic.
One of the biggest changes signaling a return to normalcy is voluntary, weekly at-home testing. Free antigen tests will be provided by the district. No insurance information will be required or collected. Last year tests were administered on campus.
“This will be the honor system and we are trusting our families and staff to do the right thing for the benefit of the broader school community,” Drati said. “We would like to see high participation with this program.”
Since the CDPH and the LACDPH are strongly encouraging the voluntary wearing of masks indoors, SMMUSD officials have also asked for cooperation but are not requiring the use of masks indoors. Health officials have stated, “Masks have been found to reduce spread of illness and work well as a self-protective measure against Covid-19 and other illnesses.” SMMUSD says it will follow up with information on recommended protocols on masking should there be a positive case in a classroom.
While vaccinations are still required for staff, there is no mandate for students to be inoculated against COVID-19. Still, vaccinations and boosters are being recommended. Children 6 months and older are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. According to a variety of health authorities the vaccines have shown to be highly effective in reducing severity of illness, hospitalization and death. The district has said that it encourages vaccinations to “limit the amount of disruption with staffing due to potential exposure of staff to positive Covid cases in the community.”
SMMUSD staff has been working all summer to prepare classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums, and offices using best management practices and the latest cleaning protocols. Cleaning surfaces continues daily at all sites. The district has also addressed indoor air quality with the installation of MERV 13 (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values) filters in air-conditioned classroom spaces. Indoor spaces without air conditioning have been provided with “air scrubber” devices.
According to SMMUSD, “MERV 13 air filters can filter out bacteria and viruses that can cause infections, including COVID-19. They are the highest-rated filters that fit in standard units. Most homes have MERV 8 filters as the default.”
In alignment with CDPH and the LACDPH, the district is encouraging frequent hand washing or sanitizing to help prevent the spread of illness. Additional hand-washing stations were installed at all campuses at the beginning of the pandemic.
Finally, Drati is asking that students and staff remain home if they are sick. “We can prevent the spread of illness when everyone does their part and stays home when sick,” he said.
Last year’s testing hubs for readmittance will be phased out, replaced by take-home antigen testing kits.
In a virtual town hall presented by the LACDPH on Aug. 10, Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer reminded people that “although cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 remain elevated in the county, numbers are improving. While most children will experience mild illness there’s no way to know in advance how a child may be affected. Unfortunately, there have been almost 2,000 children ages 5-17 that have been hospitalized with COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic.”
Although it’s rare, Ferrer said some children develop serious post-infection illness known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MISC). There have been 12 pediatric COVID-19 deaths in LA County since the pandemic began.