While state public health mandates call for students and staff to wear masks indoors, officials have largely left testing students for COVID-19 up to school districts — causing many Orange County parents to wonder if testing is required or not.

State Health Officer Dr. Tomás J. Aragón issued an early August health order requiring all school staff to either be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing, but hasn’t addressed student testing. 

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Some OC school districts took it upon themselves to mandate COVID-19 testing for students and staff, while others offer optional testing as county public health officials have noted an uptick in virus cases among children.

The Santa Ana Unified school board voted unanimously on Aug. 24 to introduce free weekly COVID-19 testing for all students and faculty, regardless of vaccination status, at every school. 

Superintendent Jerry Almendarez then directed testing to be mandatory for all staff and students attending schools in person.

The district, which serves a community hit hard by the pandemic, also has some of the only schools still utilizing hybrid classes for those who wish to remain online.

Superintendent Jerry Almendarez wrote a letter to families in the district detailing the timeline for COVID-19 testing: 

“The District plans to roll out testing in weekly phases starting in early September. In week one, the District plans to launch testing for all staff at District offices. Week two will include students and staff at the high school level. Week three will include intermediate students and staff. Week four will include elementary school students and staff. After week four, all students and staff would be tested weekly.”

At the Sept. 14 Santa Ana Unified school board meeting, Almendarez said he decided to mandate testing because less than 50% of the student population is vaccinated due to age restrictions.

“It was my decision as the superintendent to make this COVID test and mandate that for all staff and students even though it’s not required to be mandated,” Almendarez said at the meeting. “In my conversations with the health department there’s a couple of concerns out there that in November (and) December, our area is expected to experience another surge … The least we can do is mandate the testing.”

Since the pandemic began, at least 600 children have been hospitalized for COVID. 

[Read: Over 600 OC Children Hospitalized Since Pandemic Started, Officials Fear Long Term Effects]

Last Friday, OC Deputy Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong announced the virus killed a child in August — the county’s second pediatric death from COVID.

“We have confirmed a COVID-related pediatric death in Orange County last month. This was a child under 5 with underlying health conditions,” Chinsio-Kwong said at the Friday news briefing.  “This is the second pediatric death in Orange County. The first one occurred in August 2020.” 

Testing at the Santa Ana Unified School District will be conducted at each school and will be offered through oral swab.

Fermin Leal, spokesperson for Santa Ana Unified, said the district is the first in the county to approve required testing this school year.

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In contrast, the Laguna Beach Unified School District voted against implementing mandatory COVID-19 testing for students during the Sept. 9 board meeting.

​​“I really feel we should focus on providing information and education to parents about the importance of testing and why,” school board Trustee Jan Vickers said at the meeting. “I’m not comfortable with mandating this for students. Parents have the well-being of their children at heart. I have confidence they will do what’s best.”

The board discussed requiring baseline testing — where all students would be tested for COVID-19 one time — but the group voted against the process 3-2.

The school district does offer weekly testing for unvaccinated staff and will continue to do so for the rest of the school year. The district also has free PCR test kits available at district offices and school sites for families who wish to get tested, but will not require mandated testing for students.

Other school districts are also debating COVID-19 testing protocols.

Newport-Mesa Unified spokesperson Annette Franco said the schools only offer voluntary testing for staff. If students require testing, the district can offer them outside resources to receive a COVID-19 test, but the district is not conducting any testing for students in-house.

Annie Brown, Irvine Unified spokesperson, said the district is offering mandatory weekly testing for unvaccinated staff.

Additionally, Brown said that the schools will also offer free COVID-19 test kits for students who came into contact with someone who had the virus at school. This program will be available for the remainder of the school year.

“We are trying to make it as easy as possible for our students and staff to access testing,” Brown said. 

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According to Ocean View School District’s 2021-2022 COVID-19 Prevention Plan, the district will implement state-mandated weekly testing for unvaccinated employees, but the plan does not mention any other forms of mandatory or voluntary testing.

Orange Unified School District is offering voluntary testing for students and mandatory testing for unvaccinated staff. The tests will be held at our four comprehensive high schools and the district office, according to spokesperson Hana Brake.

According to Tracey Golden, Senior Director of School Safety and Operations, Anaheim Elementary School District district is offering free COVID-19 tests for all students and staff every weekday at Key Elementary school. The schools are requiring weekly tests for unvaccinated staff, but there is not a mandatory requirement for student testing, Golden said.

Abby Broyles — spokesperson for Garden Grove Unified School District — said their schools will follow the state’s health department guidance, which recommends twice weekly testing for students who are identified as close contacts, but continue to attend school for the instructional day on modified quarantine.  

Broyles said that unvaccinated staff will receive weekly testing beginning Oct. 15.

For Anaheim Union High School District, the COVID-19 Safety Plan states that the schools host free on-site testing for all students and staff at Magnolia High School and Anaheim High School on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.

The document also describes surveillance testing for students that will occur every two weeks. Additionally, participants and coaches of high-contact sports are required to test every seven days and negative test results must be on file at least 24 hours prior to practicing or competing. 

Students have the option to be tested on-site or at a different location.

This story was updated after publication to reflect updated testing information provided by Santa Ana Unified School District spokesperson.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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