Los Angeles County public health experts and school administrators hosted a virtual back-to-school safety town hall on Wednesday evening to help parents and educators prepare for classes to resume for the fall semester amid two public health emergencies: COVID-19 and monkeypox.

Santa Monica schools are back in session next week, meaning parents and school leaders are preparing for the fourth school year impacted by the COVID-19 virus, coupled with rising concerns over the monkeypox virus, which was just declared a public health emergency earlier this month. 

“While cases and hospitalizations remain elevated in LA County, the good news is that our numbers are significantly improving,” LA County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said of local COVID-19 cases at the start of the town hall. And, although many parents expressed alarm over monkeypox, experts on the call said there was little to fear from that virus spreading in schools, since it is extremely rare in school-aged populations and spreads almost exclusively via prolonged touching.

The overall message from the town hall was that the same best practices used to stop the spread of the coronavirus also apply to monkeypox and influenza, and should be put into practice once school resumes. 

Dr. Dawn Terashita, associate director of the LA County Acute Communicable Disease Control Program, said that monkeypox remained very rare, but shared common symptoms to look out for: primarily, a rash that “begins as a flat, red spot and progresses to bumps or blisters before scabbing over and resolving.” 

In the case of COVID, as well as the flu, Terashita recommended vaccinations as the first defense against infection, together with other basics such as staying home while feeling sick and wearing masks during periods of high transmission.

Other health officials agreed.

“First, you know, general hygiene, hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene is basic infection control against any number of infectious agents, including COVID-19,” Dr. Rob Gilchick, who serves as the Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Section Chief for the LADPH, said. “If there’s any advantages or positive things that have come about as a result of this pandemic, maybe one of them is more of this attention to hand washing and cleaning, sanitizing. So, it remains important that schools make available running water, soap, paper towels or air dryers to dry hands, as well as hand sanitizer in places, in the halls or in rooms, so that it’s easily accessible to everyone.”

Ferrer received intense community pushback after initially suggesting LA County implement a new indoor mask mandate during the peak of the latest COVID-19 virus surge earlier this summer. While indoor masking is still required in several settings including healthcare facilities, carceral facilities and on transit, schools do not have a mask mandate; rather, masking is “strongly recommended.”

Ferrer defended this recommendation during the town hall on Wednesday.

“I know a lot of people hear from us, ‘It’s just a strong recommendation,’ and feel like, you know, that means it’s not that important, but a strong recommendation from the Health Department means it is really important,” Ferrer said, pointing in particular to higher-risk community members or those who live with people at elevated risk for severe illness.

When it comes to local preparations, all Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) students and staff are asked to take an antigen test prior to returning to school. Tests will be provided by each school site.

Masks remain voluntary at Santa Monica schools, but in accordance with LADPH guidelines, are “strongly recommended” for indoor use.

Superintendent Ben Drati wrote in a recent message to the school community that the District was “leaning toward” voluntary weekly antigen testing, with anyone testing positive being asked to report the result to their school site and stay home, following the honor system.

Classes resume at Santa Monica public schools on Aug. 18.

emily@smdp.com