Some students waited a year to return to class before a positive COVID test spoiled their chance

Monday’s reopening of Long Beach Unified elementary schools brought joy and “a little bit of normalcy” to the 14,000 students who returned to campus, but about 100 local families were unexpectedly left out of that excitement because their students tested positive for COVID-19.

Longfellow kindergartener Lilah Stephenson had been looking forward to her first day on an LBUSD campus for weeks, according to her mother, Amber Benjamin.

“She got to see her teacher in person on Friday at the walkthrough and she was so excited,” said Benjamin. “So she was super disappointed about it.”

In the week leading up to elementary schools reopening and welcoming back almost half of their K-5 students, kids and staff have been undergoing mass COVID-19 testing.

The California Department of Public Health requires biweekly asymptomatic testing of on-campus students while their county is in the red tier. That means in order to bring students back, the LBUSD had to administer more than 15,000 tests to students and employees.

According to LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou, of the 15,067 tests the district administered, 171 of them came back positive. The district couldn’t provide a number of how many elementary students, specifically, tested positive.

Those positive results require a 10-day quarantine for the student and their family.

“Once a person tests positive, they need to isolate,” said Eftychiou. “Another negative test does not clear them to return per LB Health Department guidelines.”

That was a point of contention for several Long Beach families, who said that subsequent tests indicate that their students’ tests administered as part of the LBUSD screenings returned false positives.

“We got a rapid test on Saturday when we heard she tested positive and we got a regular test done at CVS and both were negative,” Benjamin said.

Milton Arcos’ son, Mateo, is a first grader at Longfellow and also tested positive last weekend.

“We reacted the way anyone would; we immediately scheduled tests with the city,” said Arcos. “I tested negative, his mom tested negative, our younger son tested negative, and Mateo tested inconclusive. We retested him and he tested negative.”

Kelly McLemore’s son, Zane, is a second grader at MacArthur Elementary in Lakewood. He also tested positive last week. The family was sure the test was a false positive.

“We’ve abided by all the protocols. We haven’t really left the house at all,” said McLemore, who took her family to be tested at the LBCC testing site after getting the positive result.

“We got results back, they were all negative,” she said. McLemore said the principal at Zane’s school told her that Zane can return before 10 days if the family can show two negative PCR tests.

“Fingers crossed it comes back negative because it was really hard for him. He was so excited for school,” she said.

The other challenge for families whose students tested positive is that classroom rosters were set based on which students would be returning for class and which would remain at home doing virtual learning. That means many students who tested positive were also told they can’t attend class via Zoom and that they would have to work on their own for the duration of the isolation period.

“They told me the Zoom class is full and there’s nothing we can do, so he’d have to switch to a new teacher,” said McLemore. “We’re just telling him he’s getting an extended two-week spring break and trying to make the most of it.”

“We were told that Lilah won’t have Zoom class because her teacher is teaching in-person full time, so we’re on our own,” said Benjamin.

All three parents emphasized that they were still excited to send their kids to school on campus and expressed sympathy for the complexity of the situation facing families, teachers and the district.

“The city and district are doing a great job. I’m confident they’ll find a solution,” said Arcos. “It’s the first day. Let’s see what happens.”

The LBUSD is required by CDPH guidelines to test weekly if LA County is in the purple tier, every other week if it’s in the red tier as it currently is. The district won’t be required to test in the orange tier, which is within reach in the next week.

Testing 15,000 asymptomatic people is a big enough undertaking to influence the citywide COVID-19 statistics, and city spokesperson Jennifer Rice Epstein said the district testing was responsible for the slight bump in city COVID-19 numbers recently.

“LBUSD is conducting mass testing prior to schools opening on 3/29,” said Rice Epstein in an email. “The number of people tested in Long Beach has increased almost 4-5 fold in the past week, and as a result we have found a slightly higher number of positives than we would normally, although numbers still remain very low. We expect the numbers to decrease again over the next week.”

Before the 171 positive tests over the last week, the LBUSD had only 45 students test positive this school year. About 1,600 students have been on campus all year in daycare or preschool programs.

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