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Los Angeles Schools Plan To Test Students And Employees For The Coronavirus

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For months, public health experts have warned that limited coronavirus testing will make it hard to fully reopen schools. Now the nation's second largest school district has decided to take matters into its own hands. Los Angeles school leaders have announced plans to provide testing to all students and employees. Here's LA Superintendent Austin Beutner.

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AUSTIN BEUTNER: The health system ideally would be doing this. But the health system has not responded quickly enough to the need.

FADEL: Kyle Stokes from member station KPCC joins us now from Los Angeles. Hi, Kyle.

KYLE STOKES, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So we're talking about the nation's second largest school system - 66,000 staff, half a million students. What's the district's plan to test them all?

STOKES: Right. So the Los Angeles Unified School District is planning to start classes in online-only mode this week. But the plan is to soon start slowly inviting folks to campuses for periodic tests, starting first with the skeleton crews that are currently working on district campuses and eventually widening to all employees and to students. And there are some big names signed on to this effort - UCLA, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, two health insurance providers, Microsoft. And then co-chairing the task force to coordinate this effort is former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, which sort of gives you a sense of just how ambitious this program is.

FADEL: Wow. You think an effort like this would be aimed at getting students back on campus, but that's not the immediate goal, right?

STOKES: Right. And this is really worth emphasizing. This is not a testing system that is meant to catch every single infection so that campuses can reopen, at least right away. The purpose is research. Those three universities I mentioned, they're going to study the test results. And they're going to try and create kind of a high-level picture of how prevalent COVID-19 is in school communities, and maybe they can use that picture to determine whether it's safe to reopen schools down the line. And LA is hoping that this research is going to help inform their school reopening decision and maybe even decisions across the country as well. But for now the superintendent here says it's still too soon to talk about reopening. The virus is still too prevalent in Los Angeles.

FADEL: Are any other school districts doing anything similar?

STOKES: Yeah. We asked around, and it kind of looks like Los Angeles' program is unique in its ambition. We do know that the state of Delaware does have a testing plan for all staff before they return to schools. There's a program in the Denver area where eight school systems get access for staff testing every two weeks thanks to an outside organization. But in Los Angeles, the school district is footing the bill to the tune of $150 million, which, even in a district of this size, is no small sum. And between, you know, the cuts to state budgets and the potential - you know, the deficit in federal aid for schools right now, it's something that national school experts say is going to make Los Angeles unique. It's a model but maybe not something that can be replicated.

FADEL: Reporter Kyle Stokes covers education for member station KPCC in Los Angeles. Thanks.

STOKES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PSALM TREES' "CALL WHENEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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