HomePublicationBurbankBUSD Steps Up COVID Measures

BUSD Steps Up COVID Measures

First published in the Jan. 15 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

A winter surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continues to rage through Los Angeles County and the Burbank Unified School District is doing what it can to allay concerns from families and employees.
The district distributed at-home coronavirus test kits to families last week and hosted three testing clinics to keep transmission low at BUSD sites. It also acquired medical-grade masks that are now required for employees and surgical masks for students.
The Board of Education held a special meeting last Saturday to explore the possibility of a testing mandate for teachers and students when the case rate within the community reaches a specific threshold. Superintendent Matt Hill told the Leader on Thursday that implementing such a requirement is a step in the right direction after what many families felt was a rocky start to the spring semester.
BUSD employees and students would be tested by either using a home kit or visiting one of the clinics set up by the district in partnership with Vital Healthcare and submitting their results to site administrators before the start of the week.
The board and district staff set a goal to implement mandatory testing for all employees and students by Jan. 24, but the fluidity of the pandemic makes it difficult for BUSD to set a hard deadline.
“We start to feel like we’re getting into a rhythm and routine of the current situation and with the Delta variant, we kind of knew the guidelines and safety measures put in place and went into that routine and started seeing the case numbers going down,” Hill said. “All of a sudden with Omicron, cloth masks are not effective against this strain so you need to upgrade your mask.
“Before, we were testing and we saw very low positivity rates, so we thought testing may not be the right tool and now testing is a big tool to use. I think the biggest challenge is adapting with the virus, and science has to keep up and give us new guidance to implement, and people get frustrated because they got comfortable with the old guidance.”
While some parents were thankful that the district committed to returning from the holiday break on Jan. 3, several stakeholders were critical of the board for its decision to not postpone in-person instruction and have students and teachers return to campus without testing them beforehand.
According to the BUSD COVID-19 dashboard, there were 652 confirmed cases among students and 82 among employees between Dec. 31 and Jan. 13.
Many districts, including Burbank, anticipated having at-home rapid self-tests provided by the state available for distribution before resuming in-person instruction but demand for the kits skyrocketed as COVID-19 cases in L.A. County increased, making the product scarce.
Burbank Unified received an allocation of 5,000 kits this week that are prioritized for employees, and more orders are expected to arrive.
BUSD Vice President Steve Ferguson acknowledged that the decision to return from the break without testing was a mistake and the board will have to make an extra effort to regain the trust of the Burbank community.
“I think we need to fundamentally acknowledge we screwed up,” he said during the special meeting on Jan. 8. “This board member is sorry. Some progress happened between [Jan. 3 and Jan. 7]. Having said that, the road map ahead involves a lot of work for all of us and a lot of extra hours for all of us until we get this right and until we can operate from a place where the public trusts us and, frankly, we trust one another again.”
BUSD President Charlene Tabet added that she and her fellow board members “are not perfect” and they did their best at the time with the information at hand to make the best decision “for most people.”
Attendance was relatively low during the first week of the new semester, and eight classrooms had to quarantine and pivot to remote learning temporarily due to health and safety protocols. According to Hill, the district had about 25% of students not attending this week because they were either at home or doing independent study. Though the number seems high, he said it was an improvement and he is “starting to see more students each day, so that’s promising.”
Hill added that there were fewer absences among teachers and the district did not have to rely on as many substitute teachers, who have been in high demand during the winter surge.
Board members believe communication is essential in mending the relationship between BUSD and its stakeholders and asked staff to provide families with more updates. A subcommittee will also be formed next month to review Burbank’s social media and communications policy.
“We’ve received a lot of feedback of that constant cadence of communication,” Hill said. “That’s a reflection of me. In the past, I liked to have all the answers before I sent an update. But things are moving so fast and people need to know that we’re working on it. Things need to be done more timely.”
The board also discussed a mandate for employees to receive the COVID-19 booster shot, but district staff recommended that topic be shelved for now because most of them are not eligible for the additional dose, which is recommended at least five months after the primary series of coronavirus vaccinations.
The COVID-19 conversation is likely to continue at the next Board of Education meeting, which will be at City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m.


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