Gov. Gavin Newsom promised that schools would receive at-home COVID-19 tests in time for students to safely return to campuses after winter break, as health officials warned of a surge in cases over the holidays.
But as many school districts resumed classes on Monday, they did so without having received a single test from the state.
Just half of the 6 million tests Newsom said the state would purchase for schools have been delivered, while an additional 1 million tests are en route and expected to be delivered within 24 hours, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health said Monday. An additional shipment of 1.5 million tests was expected to arrive Monday to the state’s warehouse before being directed to counties, while the remaining 500,000 tests have been ordered and are expected to arrive later this week, the agency said.
It’s unclear how long it will take for those tests to be directed to make their way to families.
Deliveries of testing supplies did not come in time for scores of schools including those in Long Beach, Rocklin, Sacramento, Burbank, San Leandro and Carlsbad, which were among those that resumed in-person instruction on Monday or were set to resume Tuesday.
Tanya Schwarz, a Long Beach Unified parent, scrambled to acquire a test of her own before sending her daughter to school on Monday, and said she worries that schools will close campuses because they are not ready for Omicron outbreaks without proper testing.
A spokesperson confirmed Monday that the district had not received any tests.
“I just feel completely let down by our local, state and federal leaders. It feels as if they have had no foresight, even though scientists were ringing the alarm about Omicron many weeks ago,” Schwarz said.
Newsom vowed last month to purchase 6 million tests to hand out prior to districts resuming classes as part of an effort to ensure schools are able to remain open as at-home tests are hard to find and infection rates climb. His plan called for making one or two rapid at-home tests available to every public school student in kindergarten through 12th grade prior to a return from winter break. The cost of the tests was not immediately available.
“I do not want to see our schools shut down,” Newsom said at a news conference on Dec. 22 while making the announcement.
The governor said families would “get those results back quickly” to “make sure when they go back in person they’re doing so safely knowing that they have not contracted the disease over the holidays.”
The state’s public health department said shipping delays due to storms across the country over the last two weeks led to fewer tests being delivered to California.
At least 20 counties had not received any tests as of Monday evening, according to the California County Superintendents Educational Services Assn.
“I will say this has been quite challenging to navigate since nearly every school had dismissed for break when they decided to roll this out,” CCSEA spokesperson Kindra Britt said. “Those that have received them have worked very hard with their teams to distribute as quickly as possible upon delivery, and before students returned. Most have not received their tests yet, with no delivery date confirmed. Either way, many have students that started coming back today, so the messaging of how important this was to do before they came back is not applicable.”
When the tests didn’t arrive at many districts over the weekend, school officials began sending out emails to families.
“You may have heard that, this holiday season, California is encouraging families to access COVID-19 testing for their children before they return to school after the winter break. Unfortunately, there are no tests available for the district to distribute to families,” Carlsbad Unified said in a message to parents, adding that the state could not tell the district when a shipment of the promised tests would arrive.
The Los Angeles Unified School District announced Monday that students and staff will be required to take a COVID test before returning to campus when classes resume next week. The nation’s second-largest school district will have district testing sites open Saturday, although students can have results from other locations or at-home tests as well.
At-home rapid tests have been in short supply for weeks as holiday travelers attempted to safeguard trips with prior screenings. The shortage prompted the Biden administration to announce its own plans to buy 500 million at-home rapid tests to be mailed for free to Americans who requested them, starting in January.
“It’s a good idea to test students before going back,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease expert and professor of medicine at UC San Francisco. “The problem is we are telling people to test without giving them the means of being able to do so. That’s a failure of our government, not just Newsom, but the Biden administration as well. We don’t have the availability.”
Gandhi, however, said widespread testing for students returning to school isn’t as critical now as it might have been in the past, particularly when vaccines are readily available for school-age children, masks are worn inside, those with COVID-19 symptoms are required to stay home and the Omicron variant appears more mild.
“There is nothing more clear and that is school is essential,” Gandhi said.
Burbank Unified school board members considered stalling Monday’s return from winter break until next week in light of Omicron concerns but ultimately resumed class on schedule in the face of parent concerns about a return to online learning.
School board member Steve Ferguson said resuming classes on Monday was the wrong thing to do, but that he felt his hands were tied.
“There’s no time left and we’re being forced to kind of say this is what works… it’s a moot point and there’s nothing we can implement at this point,” he said at Sunday’s board meeting.
In early December, the Newsom administration sent out an additional 2 million at-home tests to 3,000 schools across the state, giving those schools the ability to send the tests home with students before winter break.
“Keeping school open, that’s the big goal that people are trying to keep in mind while keeping kids and staff safe,” said Dave Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education.
Gordon said his office, which oversees 13 school districts, has received most of the 215,000 tests promised by the state but was still working Monday to deliver them this week.
“We can start pushing out some of the ones we’ve gotten so far and districts have to push them out to families,” Gordon said.
The tests, however, will arrive on most campuses after students return this week, he said.