Santa Monica-Malibu School District to send COVID tests home for the holidays

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District administration office in Santa Monica, California. Photo by Samantha Bravo.

Students and teachers in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District are counting the days until December 17 when a two week winter break begins for holiday celebrations, visiting with families and maybe even some vacation time. But district officials are getting cautious about a winter surge in COVID-19 positive cases that has affected Los Angeles County.

With positive case rates rising exponentiallyfor the third winter in a row the Los Angeles CountyDepartment of Public Health is urging “all residents to layer in sensible health protections including indoor masking and getting vaccinated and boosted.”

In an effort to control cases at school SMMUSD officials are sending home test kits with students this week before the break starts and asking them to test before returning to campuses in January. Each school in the district will send home multiple free test kits so students and staff are able to test prior to returning. The district is asking the tests be administered the evening before or the morning of the return to school. Elementary students return to school on January 3 and secondary students return on January 4.

The district is also strongly recommending wearing masks again beginning immediately. In a memo released by SMMUSD it states: “Wear well-fitted masks in indoor public spaces, including school classrooms, offices and auditoriums. Masks are a great way to slow the spread of all respiratory viruses, not just COVID. Masks are strongly recommended by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) for ages two and up.”

The memo then cites a recent study reflecting the effectiveness of masking: Lifting Universal Masking in Schools — Covid-19 Incidence among Students and Staff | NEJM.

The wearing of masks again in classrooms and the request to test before returning from winter break are not absolute requirements, but SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker emailed The Malibu Times that the requests are, “Not mandatory. Strongly recommended.”

According to the LACDPH with the COVID-19 case rate reaching 258 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people the weekending December 10, and almost 15 hospital admissions per 100,000 people, the CDC High Community Level designation reflects both high transmission and increased stress on hospitals. “The stress on the healthcare system is compounded by high rates of influenza and other respiratory illnesses.

Increased transmission of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County means there is a higher likelihood of catching COVID during routine activities, such as grocery shopping, eating out at restaurants, running errands, or attending a concert or large holiday party;” all the activities students and staff are likely to participate in over the winter break. The LACDPH wrote: “At the current case rate, if you attend a party with 200 people, the chance that at least one person at the party is infected with COVID, is between 80-90%. If the case rate climbs to 350, that chance increases to almost 100%. And for the millions of people in the higher risk categories — elderly family members and friends, those with underlying health conditions, and those who are immunocompromised — increased chances of being exposed can have a devastating impact.

One of the most effective ways to reduce COVID-19 transmission, along with transmission of other respiratory illnesses like flu and RSV, is to wear well-fitted, high-filtration masks indoors. Everyone ages 2 and older is asked to wear a mask in indoor public spaces, such as transit, retail, event venues, schools, and worksites when around others.”

In the SMMUSD memo it stated: “We are seeing a spike in cases throughout the District and this increase is projected to continue in Los Angeles County for the next few weeks.” The memo then linked an LA Times article dated Dec. 7, 2022 with more details.

Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati ended the memo thanking the community for their cooperation. “We thank you for your ongoing efforts to keep our school communities safe.”