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Four coronavirus cases reported at La Jolla public schools; low student testing numbers concern some parents

La Jolla High School as of May 7 has had two reported cases of the coronavirus, caught during on-campus testing.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

With four weeks of in-person learning completed and most students on campus four days a week following a 13-month pandemic-related closure, the five San Diego Unified School District schools that make up the La Jolla Cluster have reported a total of four cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus, as of May 7.

Meanwhile, some parents are expressing concern that district testing protocols mean not enough students are tested to quickly detect and prevent the spread of the virus.

The testing is done regularly at school sites, provided by UC San Diego and reported on the SDUSD website (bit.ly/SDUSDCOVID). Testing for district staff is mandatory every two weeks and optional for most students (some high school athletes are required to test).

At La Jolla High School, 71 students and 36 staff members were tested April 20, with two positive student cases reported on the district’s dashboard of UCSD testing data for La Jolla High.

Principal Chuck Podhorsky said that because of confidentiality laws, he “can only comment on and notify that there was a positive case or cases on campus.” He said he also was unable to confirm whether the cases were students or staff members.

LJHS community members were sent the district’s standard “letter to non-close contacts” April 22.

The letter states: “The district learned today that a person in your school, department or building has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. This individual is currently in isolation.”

“District health staff are assisting the local health department with [the] process of identifying close contacts,” the letter states, defining close contact as “being closer than six feet for 15 minutes or longer with this individual (with or without a mask) within 48 hours prior to that person feeling sick or testing positive.”

“If you do not hear from our local health department or from our district nursing and wellness office, you are not considered a ‘close contact’ and there is nothing more for you to do at this time,” according to the letter.

Talk had spread among some LJHS parents that the positive cases were connected to a house party attended by several students.

SDUSD representatives did not respond to requests for comment about that, and Podhorsky reiterated that he could only “comment on and notify that there was a positive case or cases on campus.”

Testing is available at LJHS weekly, though it is mandatory only every two weeks for staff and some athletes.

Cumulatively, the school had 498 student tests and 193 staff tests through April 27.

At Torrey Pines Elementary, 16 students and 31 staff members were tested April 19 with no positives, although on April 17, Principal Nona Richard became aware that a student had tested positive during non-district testing.

Richard said the student was quarantined, and families of students in the classroom were notified April 18 with the “letter to non-close contacts.”

In an email to the entire TPES community April 30, Richard wrote that after a “rapid and thorough contact tracing,” no close contacts were found for the isolated student.

“I was proud to be a member of a very responsive San Diego Unified district,” Richard said. District nurses were available all weekend of the reported positive case and “were extremely thorough and helpful,” she said. “I am proud to be a principal at Torrey Pines, where students, staff and families take our safety protocols seriously.”

Through two rounds of testing as of April 19, Torrey Pines had a total of 23 student tests and 55 staff tests.

Students return to Bird Rock Elementary School on April 12 following the campus's closure since March 2020.
Students return to Bird Rock Elementary School on April 12 following the campus’s closure to regular in-person instruction since March 2020.
(Courtesy)

Bird Rock Elementary School had no coronavirus cases reported on its dashboard through April 20 (the most recent posting), but Principal Andi Frost said the school has had one positive case reported since then.

“We are not at liberty to share whether the case was a district staff member assigned to our site, or from another department, or a student,” she said. Community members were told of the positive case May 4, “the day the information was shared with me.”

In the school’s message, staff and families were told that close contacts had been notified and the campus was sanitized and “deemed safe for occupancy.”

Through April 20, 59 staff tests and 16 student tests had been conducted at Bird Rock.

The principals at all three schools said the positive cases had no effect on schedules or procedures.

“Our procedures and schedules ensure stable grouping,” Richard said.

At La Jolla Elementary School, no positive cases were reported through the April 20 testing date, when 22 students and 37 staff members were tested. The school’s totals through two rounds of testing were 76 for staff and 32 for students. Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said no other cases were reported.

Muirlands Middle School had no positive cases reported through April 21, with a total of 108 staff tests and eight student tests. Principal Jeff Luna did not respond to requests for comment about any further numbers.

The low numbers of students tested at some schools have caused concern for some parents. Nadir Weibel, whose three children attend Muirlands and Torrey Pines Elementary, said that “while SDUSD partnered with UCSD to provide a great service for testing students to our community, these efforts are only really working if the SDUSD community and families are actually engaged.”

Weibel said UCSD’s “Return to Learn” program — which through May 6 had run 289,756 tests on the university’s students and more than 77,000 employee tests since March 1 — is a “national and worldwide example of how UCSD has been able to keep transmission ... low by having every student test on a weekly basis.”

“If the SDUSD community engages toward that goal, we can all be and feel so much safer,” he said.

San Diego Unified did not respond to inquiries as to whether it would mandate student testing in the future.

“How can we know if COVID-19 is spreading without testing?” said Brita Dubova, whose child attends TPES. “Testing should be encouraged and promoted. I would hate for COVID-19 to pass through the schools … undetected due to lack of testing.”

She said she wishes “the process for signing up for testing was made simpler.” Currently, families are asked to fill out forms online, schedule a testing appointment and create a MyChart account through UCSD, which offers a digital platform to access results.

“How about a simple form sent home with kids where they can sign their permission to have their child tested?” Dubova said.

After following the procedures, Dubova said, she received a notification that her child did “not meet minimum criteria” for a MyChart account, which confused her.

Weibel also pointed to the need to make “it easy and convenient for families to test their kids. If UCSD created vending machines for [university] students to test, why can’t that be deployed also at SDUSD schools?” ◆