Even With Omicron Receding, Pali Should Maintain Weekly Testing Protocols

With the Omicron variant of COVID-19 causing a surge of infections all over the world, questions are being raised about how the return to school for millions of students should be managed entering the second semester. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) maintained their plans to begin classes after winter break on Jan. 11. The COVID-19 protocols in place don’t look much different from those used in the first semester at first glance, despite the emergence of Omicron. But Pali’s policies, especially those requiring weekly testing, soon may drastically change  — and not for the better.

On Nov. 16, LAUSD announced that several requirements would be loosened. For example, an LAUSD staff report stated that outdoor masking will only be required for school communities with a vaccination rate of under 85 percent. In a more notable change, the report stated that vaccinated students wouldn’t be required to test weekly. 

When asked in December whether or not Palisades Charter High School (PCHS) would align with the new rule changes, principal Pamela Magee indicated that no change was imminent. 

Pali will continue indoor/outdoor masking and weekly testing through January and then review health and safety conditions,” Magee said. “If COVID-19 cases are stable or declining, adjustments to the protocols will be considered.” She added that as of Dec. 15, “approximately 70 percent of students 16 years old or older are vaccinated,” indicating that the 85 percent vaccination coverage threshold would not be met in the immediate future.

This all changed on Jan. 7 when district officials, citing concerns linked to the Omicron variant transmission rates, backtracked on some of the more lenient policies. As part of their “Safe Steps to Safe Schools” plan, the school district again mandated both indoor and outdoor masking as well as weekly testing through January, regardless of vaccination status.  

While this means that protocols will remain unchanged for the time being, the language in LAUSD’s updated regulations suggests that this month changes may be made, namely the possible elimination of weekly testing as an entrance requirement to LAUSD schools. With the Pali administration indicating that it is going to “review health and safety conditions” in the coming week, it’s clear that this possible elimination may become a reality on the Pali campus. 

But this isn’t the right course of action. Especially with the emergence of a new, more contagious variant, getting rid of the weekly testing requirements will be dangerous.

The importance of the Omicron variant’s impact and mutations should not be ignored. Even though cases are beginning to level off, weekly averages in Los Angeles hover around 22,000 cases per day as of Jan. 31, according to the New York Times. That’s higher than at any other point in the pandemic, aside from the initial Omicron spike. Although the current COVID-19  vaccines and boosters offer good protection against severe illness, this variant has proven to overpower vaccinations when it comes to initial infection. 

An NPR article, citing a South African study that analyzed 78,000 people infected with Omicron, stated that the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines were only 30 percent effective in stopping initial Omicron infection (down from 60-70 percent efficacy against the Delta variant). The article also mentioned that “there will be very many breakthrough infections” due to the vaccine’s ineffectiveness against the Omicron variant. The truth is that Omicron is better at evading vaccine immunity than any other variant we’ve had so far, and exempting vaccinated students from testing requirements ignores this fact.

In addition, testing remains an important mitigation measure in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. One peer-reviewed study published on the Public Library of Science’s PLOS ONE website in March of 2021, supports the efficacy of frequent COVID-19 testing, concluding that “rapid and widespread testing in general plays a key role in reducing transmission.” The researchers stated that the “widespread deployment of mandatory or random surveillance testing in schools may in fact be the key to safe school reopening.” The CDC’s guidelines, last updated on Jan. 6, state that “regular testing, in addition to COVID-19 vaccination, is a safe, effective way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and help keep schools open for in-person learning.” The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has similar recommendations. Their K-12 school guidance states that “in times of high rates of community transmission, LA County recommends that periodic testing include fully vaccinated individuals where resources allow.” 

Policies that follow the current scientific realities of COVID-19 are not being adequately emphasized. These possible policy changes that LAUSD – and Pali – seem to be considering are not consistent with the higher transmissibility of COVID-19 due to the Omicron variant, nor are they consistent with what experts recommend. Weekly testing must remain.