Parents accuse California district of overuse of COVID tests in school reopening fight

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner has endorsed a rigorous weekly testing program

Los Angeles Unified Schools’ superintendent announced Wednesday that he’ll be leaving the job when his term is up in June – following tensions with teachers and parents over coronavirus reopenings and criticism that the district is buying and conducting far more coronavirus tests than required or advised.

Austin Beutner, who currently leads the nation’s second-largest school district, has endorsed a rigorous weekly testing program.

State and federal health guidelines suggest far less testing is required for asymptomatic students, parent watchdog group UTLA Uncensored has argued. And even the agreement between LAUSD and its teachers’ union mandates just 20% of biweekly testing for those children.

FILE - In this March 13, 2020, file photo Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District Austin Beutner speaks at a news conference at the school district headquarters in Los Angeles. Beutner will step down as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, he announced Wednesday, April 21, 2021, leaving the post as the nation's second-largest school district begins reopening classrooms shuttered for a year by the coronavirus pandemic. He will step down after his contract ends in June. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

FILE - In this March 13, 2020, file photo Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District Austin Beutner speaks at a news conference at the school district headquarters in Los Angeles. Beutner will step down as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, he announced Wednesday, April 21, 2021, leaving the post as the nation's second-largest school district begins reopening classrooms shuttered for a year by the coronavirus pandemic. He will step down after his contract ends in June. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File) (AP)

The district required baseline testing a week before students could return to class and then mandates that they submit to additional periodic screenings, whether they are asymptomatic or even infants in the district’s day care, or return to remote learning. An FAQ on the LAUSD website says testing frequency is subject to change depending on the district’s medical team and scientific recommendations, but it’s currently set at weekly.

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Critics were also suspicious of past ties between the superintendent and former EarthLink founder Sky Dayton, who also launched SummerBio, the district’s coronavirus test provider. Beutner had served on Earthlink’s board from 2001 to 2003.

"It's fine -- people do business with friends," one district parent, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation told Fox News. "But then when they require you to do 10 times the regular required amount and infinitely more than the recommended amount, that's concerning."

She also criticized the cost of so much testing.

"You're wasting taxpayer money, and you're shoving Q-tips up kid’s noses," she said. "You're pulling them out of instructional time. My kid is only in school for two and a half hours right now. I don't want her being pulled out of class for 15 minutes so that her and her friends get their random testing done. I want her in class."

Another group of parents filed a lawsuit two weeks ago over the weekly testing mandate, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

The superintendent did not mention those criticisms in his letter to the board Wednesday. But he described the district’s testing program as "the most comprehensive" for school-based testing in the country.

He went on to list some of his key accomplishments over the past three years, including increasing the graduation rate and cutting $150 million in wasteful spending. But he also wrote that he believes "it is fitting that a new superintendent should have the privilege of welcoming students back to school in the fall."

LAUSD declined to comment on its testing program or Beutner’s departure but noted the school board issued a statement earlier thanking Beutner for his "instrumental" role guiding the district through the coronavirus pandemic and his work over the last three years. They wished him well.

District officials said in September that at $50 million, SummerBio was the lowest of 22 bidders vying to provide coronavirus tests to the district last year – roughly $150 million cheaper than the next-lowest bidder. The company said it could provide 100,000 to 200,000 tests a week for between $11.48 and $12.72. The district has more than 600,000 students.

The contract also included a provision under which the district could double its weekly testing, raising the deal’s ceiling to $80 million, the news site LAist reported at the time. The lab did not immediately respond to questions about whether that option had been exercised.

LAUSD acknowledged when it announced the bids that Beutner had had a prior business relationship with Dayton -- but said it ended in 2008.

According to the district, private funds from Health Net and Cedars Sinai would augment the public funds going into the testing program.

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Still, even the economical cost of the tests raise some concerns for parents critical of the program.

In nearby Culver City, the district recently told parents it was temporarily halting its asymptomatic COVID-testing program amid an "unprecedented" number of false positives.