Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District offices (File photo)

COVID-19 testing and quarantine rules are set to change — again — for Santa Monica public school students, according to recent messaging from district administrators.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Superintendent Ben Drati said he would be preparing a letter to parents as of Friday, Jan. 14, that would help to clarify shifting policies for teachers and students. When that email is issued, it will be the fourth such clarifying letter Drati has penned since classes resumed on Jan. 3.

As the rules stand now, vaccinated students and teachers who have a close contact with a COVID-19 case may remain on campus, so long as they remain asymptomatic. Unvaccinated students must begin to quarantine. They may then test on the fifth day following exposure using an antigen test, and if results come back negative, they can return to campus the next day.

Those who test positive must isolate and re-test on day five using an antigen test (taken at a clinic or JAMS hub). If that test is negative and they are asymptomatic they may return to campus the following day.

Beginning next week, Drati said, any unvaccinated student who has tested positive for and subsequently recovered from COVID-19 within 90 days would be treated as though they were vaccinated and not have to begin quarantine following a close contact.

More rule changes were also on the horizon.

“The CDC came out, and the state adopted, last night, a new protocol that says that given the analysis and research, they don’t want to send anybody home who’s exposed — vaccinated or not. What they’re recommending is we just focus strictly on the positive cases,” Drati said. “The health department is grappling with that right now — written guidance for what we’re going to do.”

Drati said superintendents across California were asking for county-level guidance to change quickly, since they anticipated parents would be unhappy with a policy that did not align with state rules.

According to Drati, the new rules trickle down from the federal government to school sites, but rule changes take time as various levels of government implement them.

“The CDC informs the state [health] department. The state informs the county. Then the districts conform to county protocols,” Drati said. “I just want to be clear.”

School administrators were walking a tightrope in January, navigating pressure from parents, teachers and health experts to craft policies that would keep kids in classrooms with minimal risk to student and teacher health. When Drati presented an update on the district’s testing, quarantine and return-to-class policy during the Thursday, Jan. 13, regular school board meeting, it appeared none of the approximately two dozen parents and students who called in to comment were satisfied. Many said school officials were past the point of attempting to shield kids from an inevitable COVID infection and should refocus efforts away from health and toward education; others said they wanted to move to a hybrid or distance learning model to best protect kids.

“I think, for the near future, the plan you’ve presented is — maybe it’s too cautious for some, not cautious enough for others. So maybe it’s Goldilocks. Maybe it’s right in the middle. I think it makes sense right now, for where we are,” School Board Member Jon Kean told the Superintendent following the presentation and an hour of public comment.

Prior to winter break, public health protocols mandated a 10-day isolation period for anyone who tested positive and a 10-day quarantine for “close contacts,” if not fully vaccinated. Close contacts included students known to have been in class with someone who tested positive.

Starting on New Years Eve, LA County DPH began offering “options” to school districts for various masking, testing and quarantine protocols.

Beginning on Dec. 31, there was an option that close contacts did not need to quarantine if they were fully vaccinated at the time of exposure (including a booster, if eligible) or if they had been infected within the last 90 days, so long as they were asymptomatic. The health department also announced a requirement for staff to wear a surgical or hospital-grade mask. Also beginning Dec. 31, there was an option for the 10-day isolation period to be shortened to five days, as long as the person received a negative antigen test on day five, did not have symptoms, and wore an upgraded mask (mandatory for staff; strongly recommended for students). Those protocols were in place for close contacts identified on campus, which Drati referred to as “mask to mask” contact — not for contacts at home.

By Jan. 4, as the omicron variant surge began to accelerate, it became strongly recommended that schools institute universal testing due to the current surge — SMMUSD schools already had a screening test program in place.

SMMUSD administration chose not to implement an additional option presented on Jan. 4. That option would have allowed asymptomatic close contacts to remain on campus, regardless of vaccination status, so long as they received a negative lab test following exposure and again on or after day five following exposure.

When it came to school site closures, Drati said it was not up to SMMUSD, even if administrators did want to go back to remote learning.

“The only agency that could shut us down — and by shut down, what I mean is either cancel school altogether, or have us both distance learning like we did with online learning in the past — is the Health Department. And they’re not going to do that,” Drati said. Without an order from the LA County DPH, any school site closures would result in a shortened summer or spring break.

The exception to that rule was the brief remote start at Malibu Middle and High schools, which had been ordered by DPH because of an outbreak on campus just before spring break, Drati explained.

Drati said that health officials felt schools being open was overall safer for students than a return to distance learning would be.

“What they’re saying is that they like schools open, because schools are safer than kids being outside … because transmission in schools is much lower than what they’re seeing … happening on the weekends and activities are occurring outside of school,” Drati said. “So, keeping schools open to them is actually a way of mitigating the spread.”