Hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles Unified School District students will return to classrooms on Monday, with mask-wearing and weekly COVID-19 testing mandated for all pupils, teachers and staff, and with all district employees now required to be vaccinated.
"I think all of us know inside that this year will be, again, unlike any other," interim Superintendent Megan Reilly said in a back-to-school speech last week.
While the year will be a stark contrast to 2020, when all learning was done remotely, the district returns to full in-person instruction in the shadow of growing concerns about the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 that has sent L.A. County case numbers and hospitalizations soaring in recent weeks.
In her speech last week, Reilly said the new school year comes as people look to "retake the reins" of their lives from COVID. But the virus will be unforgettably present as classes resume.
Mask-wearing will be required by students and staff, regular cleaning and sanitizing will be conducted on campuses, with frequent hand-washing and social distancing encouraged. The district has also repeatedly highlighted upgraded air-filtration systems on campuses.
All students and staff will also be required to undergo weekly COVID testing, regardless of their vaccination status. And on Friday, Reilly announced another major mandate — all district employees will have to be vaccinated by Oct. 15 or face possible termination.
Long lines were seen at some testing sites over the weekend.
"The science is clear — vaccinations are an essential part of protection against COVID-19," Reilly said in a statement. "To date, our safety measures include daily health checks for everyone going onto school campuses, masks, comprehensive COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and isolation of cases, hand sanitizer, increased sanitization/cleaning of schools and upgraded ventilation. This additional step goes above local and federal health guidelines in order to provide another layer of safety in our schools, especially for our youngest learners.
"We deeply care about all of our employees. We appreciate everyone's commitment to maintaining the safest possible environment for the students and families we serve."
The requirement goes beyond orders issued by the state last week, requiring all public and private school employees to either show proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing.
United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD educators, threw its support behind the mandate. The union's board, which previously voted not to oppose a mandate, toughened its stance last week and voted in favor of a vaccine mandate.
"I am the parent of an LAUSD fifth-grader, and my family has been going through the same uncertainty and anguish as so many other families as we approach the return to school," UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said.
"Because of the protocols that UTLA educators and LAUSD families fought for and won, LA Unified has among the strictest COVID safety protocols in the country. But this Delta variant is unlike anything we have seen so far in this crisis — especially its impact on children — and we all need to step up to do our part to protect the most vulnerable among us."
The LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the nation, behind only New York.
Although in-person instruction is expected to be the norm as classes resume, the district offered an online option for students unable or unwilling to return. According to the district, 12,456 students opted for the online learning, or less than 3% of the district's student enrollment.