First published in the Jan. 8 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Schools throughout the state grappled with returning from the winter break for in-person instruction amid a concerning COVID-19 surge due to holiday gatherings and a more transmissible Omicron variant.
The majority of districts in Los Angeles County had scheduled reopening for business this week, including the Burbank Unified School District, which held an emergency meeting on Sunday, Jan. 3, to explore the possibility of extending the break by one week to give stakeholders and employees an opportunity to test before returning to campuses and get accustomed to the new health and safety protocols implemented by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
After nearly four hours of public comments and discussion, Burbank’s Board of Education reluctantly agreed with staff’s recommendation to go forward as planned and open for business on Monday.
“We’re trying to do the best that we can here for everyone. I still think that opening schools is the recommendation that staff is making,” said Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Sharon Cuseo on Sunday. “It is less chaotic and disruptive out of both options.”
Several students and teachers pleaded that the board consider postponing the return from vacation because of the spike in cases and hospitalizations and limited testing opportunities throughout the county. At-home kits are also scarce in Southern California, and district staff did not anticipate the demand for testing would be so high.
The Burbank school district had testing clinics scheduled this week at various school sites, but many felt it should have been planned before returning to campus.
Cuseo said there was “pre-planning” and that many conversations about testing were had during prior board meetings and among district staff.
“We had elected to really wait on the state and governor’s lead on how to proceed with that and chose a more conservative approach,” she said. “We did not anticipate that there would be a shortage of voluntary testing available in the community — that we did not anticipate.”
Boardmember Steve Frintner leaned toward returning on Monday, as did President Charlene Tabet, and felt that delaying school “even a week will be a burden.”
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t consider [postponement], but I have to be convinced that it would have a significant impact on the health and safety of our students, and I’m not there,” Frintner said. “If we did that now, I don’t feel like next Monday would be any better than tomorrow. We would be facing the same situation again, and we would probably be facing it for several weeks.”
Vice President Steve Ferguson and Emily Weisberg favored the delay to give teachers and students time to prepare and get accustomed to the tightened restrictions from the county — which include having everyone masked up outdoors and employees wearing medical-grade masks.
“People aren’t social distancing 6 feet,” Ferguson said. “I’m not trying to preach, but this is what our health professionals are telling us at a minimum what we need to be doing and we need to focus on that again and create time and space for people to get back in that mindset. … And I think time is needed to do that.”
Anticipated positive tests and a shortage of substitute teachers and custodians were also of concern to a few of the board members, but staff said it’s an issue all districts are dealing with at the moment and that it would be a “big ask” for instructors to teach remotely on one day’s notice.
The panel — without board member Armond Aghakhanian — ultimately agreed with staff’s recommendation to reopen and scheduled a special meeting Saturday at 9 a.m. to explore mandatory testing for students and staff and enforcement of the COVID-19 booster for all employees.
BUSD Testing Clinics Reveal 145 Positive Cases
Burbank Unified held four testing clinics this week at different school sites, which administered nearly 2,300 antigen tests in the first three clinics, revealing 145 positive tests.
The first clinic was held at Burbank High School on Monday. Out of the 1,004 individuals tested, 67 students and 19 employees tested positive for the coronavirus.
John Burroughs High School hosted another clinic on Tuesday in which 901 tests were administered with 36 students and seven staff members testing positive.
Only 386 tests were administered at Dolores Huerta Middle School on Wednesday and 16 came out positive, 13 of which were pupils.
The district had another test clinic at John Muir Middle School on Thursday but the results were not posted on the district’s website in time for the Leader’s deadline.
As of Thursday, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard reports that there have been 124 confirmed coronavirus cases among students and 39 cases among employees within the past two weeks.