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In NYC and LA, returning pupils face battery of virus tests

The two largest school districts in the U.S. are rolling out ambitious and costly plans to test students and staff for the coronavirus, bidding to help keep school buildings open amid a rise in infections among the nation’s school-age children.

New York City is set to begin testing 10% to 20% of students and staff in every building monthly beginning Thursday, the same day the final wave of the district’s more than 1 million students returns to brick-and-mortar classrooms for the first time in six months.

“Every single school will have testing. It will be done every single month. It will be rigorous,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in announcing the plan as part of an agreement with the teachers union to avert a strike. At least 79 Department of Education employees have died from the virus.

With an estimated 100,000-120,000 tests expected each month, each costing between $78 and $90, New York City’s school-based testing plan goes well beyond safety protocols seen in most other districts.


Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District, has launched a similarly comprehensive, $150 million, testing program to help determine when it will be safe to resume in-person instruction. The district began the school year remotely in August for all 600,000 students. The New York and Los Angeles systems are respectively the nation’s largest and 2nd-largest school districts.

Leaders in both cities say regular testing is needed in districts of their size and in areas of the country that previously witnessed unnerving surges of the virus.

The coronavirus struck hard at the elderly early in the pandemic and is now increasingly infecting American children and teens in a trend authorities say appears to be fueled by school reopenings and other activities. Children of all ages now make up 10% of all U.S cases, up from 2% in April, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported Tuesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that the incidence of COVID-19 in school-age children began rising in early September as many returned to classrooms. Its recommendations emphasize distancing, cleaning and face coverings for most reopening plans — though no requirement for universal testing of students and staff.

As part of the LAUSD plan announced this month, all students and staff will get an initial baseline test in coming weeks to ensure the incidence of COVID-19 is low, and then another test immediately before returning to school, Superintendent Austin Beutner said Monday.

Periodic testing will continue throughout the school year under a collaboration chaired by Beutner and former U.S. Education Arne Duncan that also includes the University of California, Los Angeles, Johns Hopkins and Stanford universities, Microsoft and several health providers.

“Pulling off something like this is almost a miraculous undertaking in and of itself because there are so many things that could go wrong,” said Arlene Inouye, secretary of United Teachers Los Angeles, which negotiated conditions for school nurses tasked with testing, “but what’s really encouraging is that there are a lot