Curbing COVID in AUSD: What It Takes


Darin Buenaluz, Staff Writer

Attending school in-person during a pandemic comes with risks, notably COVID-19 itself. Every positive case must be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible to prevent further spread of the virus to unsuspecting students, family members and staff members. I spoke with the District Nurse Manager, Mrs. Erica Newkirk, to gain a better insight into how Arcadia Unified School District (AUSD) is approaching COVID from a healthcare perspective.

The first step of the process involving positive students actually starts with the student themselves or their parents, as they are responsible for notifying the school of an exposure and subsequent positive COVID test result.

“Our exposure management plan essentially happens when we receive a notification or become concerned that a person could have tested positive for COVID-19. The primary way that we’re notified of a positive case is by students or staff or family using our AUSD COVID Support Form to notify us of a positive case,” said Mrs. Newkirk.

After the information regarding the positive case is received, the form, which is fully automated, immediately sends feedback to the individuals in question, including parents and students, about their next steps in making sure they are quarantining and getting tested on the correct dates so that they can return to school.

Following the positive-tested students receiving their instructions comes the process of contact tracing, which has undergone multiple changes over the course of the past month and is the most time consuming. As it stands, the district’s healthcare system begins determining close contacts based off of student reports, such as who the positive student hangs out with at school or shares classes with. This process of contact tracing is further supported by resources such as teacher reports and seating charts.

According to Mrs. Newkirk, “what we’re looking for is any individual who has been within six feet of the infected individual for 15 minutes or more during their contagious period, and their contagious period starts either 48 hours prior to symptoms or 48 hours prior to their positive test if they were asymptomatic.” 

After the close contacts are identified, they are sent an electronic letter letting them know of their identification and their next steps according to the guidelines provided by the LA County Department of Public Health (LACDPH). These letters were sent immediately prior to the recent spike in new COVID cases, but due to the sheer volume of cases and corresponding lists of close contacts, the distribution now has a delay. Infected classrooms are deep cleaned by the district’s COVID 19 Rapid Response custodial teams, though all classrooms are regularly sanitized. Finally, reports of case numbers are sent to the LACDPH.

However, it’s important to note that the process of contact tracing will be changing in accordance with new LACDPH recommendations. These changes, like any other change in LA County school health guidelines, are done in collaboration between the Department of Health and the major school districts that will be affected.

As Mrs. Newkirk has observed,“they try to make decisions for schools in partnership with each other. The guidelines are designed to keep kids safe, but they’re also trying to do what makes sense for schools.”

Since the return from winter break, AUSD COVID cases have been higher than ever before, and many parents, students and other members of the AUSD community have developed the feeling that the district has not done enough to prevent students and staff from getting COVID.

“AUSD has been working hard in order to combat COVID-19, but we hardly feel the support. We are attending school in fear right now. Why send students to school during the most dangerous time period, because everyone has no option? Everyone knows what the outcome could be, but we can’t feel the district’s efforts to prevent that,” said junior Leon Lai.

 In spite of this, Mrs. Newkirk feels that there are a few important things that people should recognize regarding the work of the district’s healthcare system.

“I think ultimately, what’s really important for folks to remember is that myself and other leadership in the district, none of us are public health experts. We really have leaned into and relied on the Department of Public Health to guide us through this pandemic, because we’re not experts in terms of pandemic management or things of that nature. I think it might just be good [for people] to know that we’re going through this process, but we’re also experiencing this process on that end as well,” she added.

Furthermore, an often overlooked fact is that many of the district healthcare workers are parents who have students of their own attending AUSD schools. As such, they gain a clear understanding of the decisions that they make for the sake of the district community’s health because they see how it affects their own children.

“I think everyone wants our schools to be a safe space, we just need to make sure that we’re going about that in a way that’s recommended by the experts,” she said.

In the immediate future, AUSD will continue in-person learning during the surge of new COVID cases, but this doesn’t mean that the district’s healthcare force isn’t standing by idly. Mrs. Newkirk wants people to know that they’re still here and working around the clock to make sure students are as healthy as possible.

“We’re listening to what our public health partners have been telling us; they seem to think that we’re in a surge, that they do think the surge will end, and they anticipate that we’re going to do what we need to keep people safe during this surge.”

“And once the surge slows down, we might hopefully be able to go back to how we were progressing before. So if I was going to say things to people right now, thank you for your patience, thank you for your partnership, we’re going to continue to work with the experts and we’re going to trust them on their timeline in terms of when they think things will improve from here on out,” Mrs. Newkirk remarked.


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