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70 Migrant Teens Test Positive For COVID-19 At San Diego Convention Center

A medical screening station set up inside the San Diego Convention Center for...

Credit: Pool photo via CBS 8

Above: A medical screening station set up inside the San Diego Convention Center for unaccompanied migrant teens sheltering there, March 27, 2021.

UPDATE: 1:44 p.m., March 30, 2021:

On their second day operating the San Diego Convention Center as a shelter for unaccompanied migrant girls, federal and local authorities began seeking sponsors and providing care for the 723 who have arrived so far, including 70 who have tested positive for COVID-19.

U.S. Health and Human Services is overseeing the process of moving the teens and settling them with relatives and other sponsors in the U.S. The shelter, which can hold up to 1,450 minors, is the only one in the U.S. open exclusively to girls.

"It just makes a lot of sense to separate girls and boys; they have a little bit different needs and different things that make them feel nurtured," said Bonnie Preston, acting regional director for U.S. Health and Human Services.

Among those who arrived Monday, 70 tested positive for COVID-19, Preston said, noting that teens being held at the center will be tested for COVID-19 every three days. Those who test positive are held on a separate floor from the others. Those who were exposed to the virus but tested negative also are held in a separate group, with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Preston said her agency has focused so far on the minors who have been in custody the longest.

Once brought to the center, the girls are separated into groups of 50 for services and care.

"They are together for everything," Preston said, adding that their beds are separated just with draping.

Groups of minors are to arrive every other day to allow the teens at least 24 hours to settle in before another group arrives; the next group is expected on Wednesday, Preston said.

The San Diego County Office of Education plans to provide the teens with in-person educational services during the 14 to 30 days they are held at the convention center.

State law mandates that all children in California receive education regardless of their immigration status or their detention in government facilities.

"We want to instill hope, instill joy, and show care for our students while they are with us, no matter if that's for a few days or a few months," said county Superintendent of Education Paul Gothold.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Temecula, whose district includes parts of northeast San Diego County and parts of Riverside County, released a statement criticizing in-person instruction for migrants, noting that some San Diego County residents have been eager for schools to reopen completely.

"The decision to provide in-person instruction to illegal migrants is outrageous and parents have every right to be angry," Issa said.

In its response, the San Diego County Office of Education said it does not have the authority to mandate reopening at individual districts, charter schools and private schools.

Music Watson, spokeswoman for the Office of Education, reiterated the agency's commitment to serving the migrant teens.

"All children in California, regardless of immigration status, have a constitutional right to education," she said. "We also have a moral obligation to address the needs of our most vulnerable children."

KPBS reporter Joe Hong contributed to this story.

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