Can Los Angeles really test more than half a million students for COVID? Should they?

The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of the largest in the country, with roughly 600,000 students enrolled. There is an equally massive number of teachers and other staff personnel employed to support all of those children. And like school districts across the country, LAUS is struggling with the challenges of how to safely return to in-person classes this fall. In a move that they are describing as “unprecedented,” the District Superintendent announced this week that they will launch a program to test every single student and staff member for COVID-19 prior to restarting classes. The scope of this effort is certainly mind-boggling, but even if it’s possible for them to do it, how effective will such an effort be in ensuring the safety of all involved? (The Guardian)

In the most ambitious plan of its kind, Los Angeles Unified has announced plans to test its roughly 600,000 students and 75,000 employees as the nation’s second-largest school district prepares for the eventual return to in-person instruction.

The superintendent of Los Angeles Unified, Austin Beutner, said in a statement the program will provide regular Covid testing and contact tracing for school staff, students and families.

“Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary actions, and while this testing and contact tracing effort is unprecedented, it is necessary and appropriate,” Beutner said.

So let’s stop and think about what’s about to take place in Los Angeles County. Even setting aside the massive cost of this, how effective can it be and what lasting impact will it have on school safely?

First, we’ll generously assume that they manage to test all 600,000 of these kids before school starts. Some number of them are going to test positive and those kids’ parents can be informed and instructed to quarantine them for the next couple of weeks, right? So far, so good.The rest of the presumably non-infected children get shipped off to class in their allegedly virus-free schools.

How many of them will be out playing in their neighborhoods between now and the beginning of the school year? How many of those will become infected after they’ve already produced a negative test? Keep in mind that if the current averages hold true, more than 99% of the children who become infected will not only survive, but a huge number of them will be virtually asymptomatic, displaying signs of nothing worse than a cold.

Given the incubation period of the novel coronavirus, you could have a massive spread of the contagion in any number of schools for a week to ten days before you even know it. And of course, the teachers and other staff members at the schools will be exposed as well. On top of that, consider the news that Karen reported on earlier today. Some percentage of students and teachers who are tested are going to produce false negative or false positive results. That throws another unknown factor into the equation.

Are they planning on just testing the kids over and over throughout the school year? Even if they manage to find the resources to do that, none of the issues I raised above will go away.

It seems to me that this mass testing program is being done to make it look like they’re on top of the problem when they really have no control over it. With that in mind, the choice seems a lot more simple. Either send the kids back with as many social distancing protocols in place as possible and shoot for herd immunity (fingers crossed) or just admit that you can’t pull this off and leave the kids at home to engage in distance learning until there’s a vaccine ready to go. Neither are attractive options, I’ll admit, but we’re dealing with a pandemic here, people. There are no perfect solutions. Just ask New Zealand.