LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Elementary schools could soon be resuming in-person classes across Los Angeles County, with the county's rate of new COVID-19 infections dropping below the state's threshold today for reopening campuses.
But campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- the largest of about 80 school districts in the county -- will likely remain closed for now, as the district's teachers' union demands vaccinations before returning.
School districts in the county will decide individually whether to actually open campuses for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.
Those that do welcome students back will need to meet a series of safety protocols -- such as limited class sizes and provision of protective equipment - - while also continuing to offer a distance learning option to accommodate families wary of sending their children to in-person classes.
In-person instruction has been unavailable to the vast majority of the roughly 1.5 million students in public and private schools countywide since March 2020, but the state permits elementary schools to reopen as soon as counties reach an adjusted average new daily case rate of 25 per 100,000 residents. Los Angeles County met that threshold Tuesday, when new state figures put the county's average at 20 per 100,000 residents.
Meeting the threshold means schools are permitted to offer in-class instruction for students in grades TK-6, subject to safety requirements. All schools wishing to reopen must submit their infection-control plans to the county Department of Public Health and the California Department of Public Health certifying that they have implemented a full range of measures to permit a safe reopening.
In-person classes cannot resume for grades seven through 12 until the county's rate of new COVID cases falls to seven per 100,000 residents.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer was expected to release additional information about Los Angeles County's school reopening threshold and safety requirements at a news briefing scheduled for 2 p.m.
The county Department of Public Health on Monday announced that it was on the brink of the threshold, saying, "This is an encouraging milestone and we look forward to continuing to work with all stakeholders to ensure safety for students, teachers and staff returning to schools."
County Supervisor Janice Hahn celebrated the announcement, writing in a Twitter post: "This is what we have been working towards. Thank you to everyone who has worn your masks and kept your distance. Case rates in L.A. County are dropping. Now we can continue the work getting our kids and teachers safely back in classrooms where they belong."
But for Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest school system, classrooms are not expected to open immediately, with the United Teachers Los Angeles union insisting that educators and staff be vaccinated prior to returning to in-person instruction. In a statement issued last week, the union also insisted that no in-person instruction should resume until the average new case rate drops to seven per 100,000 residents -- a level that would allow the county to emerge from the most restrictive "purple" tier of the state's economic reopening roadmap.
"While LA educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms, the risk of community transmission of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County is still too high," according to the union. "UTLA remains committed to the health and safety of our students and our communities."
The union stressed that any plan for reopening schools must include "vaccines for all educators and school staff." The county is expected to make vaccinations available to teachers and other "essential" workers in about two to three weeks. But even when it does, the limited supply of vaccines means it will take weeks or even months to fully vaccinate all teachers.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued school- reopening guidelines last week, stating that vaccinations for teachers should not be a pre-requisite for in-person learning to resume. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has proposed a $6.6 billion plan for reopening campuses and providing funding for safety protocols on campuses, has also said schools can reopen before teachers and staff are vaccinated.
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner has supported the union in its call for vaccinations. He said Monday that beyond that issue, the district has done its part in comprehensively ensuring that every campus is safe and ready to welcome back students, including:
- retrofitting 80 million square feet of school buildings to make sure air is properly filtered;
- cleaning and sanitizing every room in every school;
- providing masks and PPE;
- reconfiguring classrooms and facilities to maintain social distance; and
- creating a school-based COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program.
Beutner, along with district and union leaders from several of the state's largest school districts, have previously balked at the governor's reopening plan for schools, claiming it falls short on funding for urban school districts.
Beutner announced Monday that the LAUSD's first school-based COVID-19 vaccination center will open Wednesday at Roybal Learning Center at 1200 Colton St. near downtown Los Angeles. Moderna vaccines will be administered by LAUSD school nurses and other licensed health care professionals -- but only to people eligible to be vaccinated in the county: health care workers, long-term care residents and staff and people aged 65 and older.
Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools, issued a statement Tuesday morning saying, in part, "I welcome the encouraging news that Los Angeles County has reached the threshold in COVID-19 case rates to allow our elementary schools to reopen for in-person instruction. The Los Angeles County Office of Education remains committed to guiding and supporting our 80 districts in addressing the impact of COVID-19 in the second half of the school year and beyond. This includes identifying interventions to address learning loss and working with districts to develop protocols to safely celebrate the class of 2021, including options for commencement ceremonies this spring. The road ahead for our public schools will be challenging on many fronts long after students have returned to campus. I will continue to advocate for our region's some 2 million children to ensure that resources are directed to our most vulnerable students and support efforts to address longstanding educational inequities."
Ben Drati, superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, issued a statement Monday saying the district had reached a tentative agreement with its teachers' union regarding a return to in-person classes. But that deal is also dependent on vaccines -- meaning the district's campuses will likely remain closed until at least mid- to late-March.
According to the tentative agreement, which still needs to be ratified by the union, "vaccines must be available to teachers and campus staff for a period of 15 days prior to students returning."
California health officials recently released an interactive map that allows Angelenos and others across the state to track the status of campus reopenings. The Safe Schools Reopening Map provides data on the status of reopening and safety planning for school districts, charter and private schools in Los Angeles and across California. Officials said they hope it will help communities and school staff evaluate their own reopening plans.
Schools will update their information every two weeks on the map, and the California Department of Public Health will add data on reported outbreaks in each school district and information about COVID-19 testing.
The map was created through a partnership between the state, county office of education and the California Collaborative in Education Excellence. It can be accessed at https://bit.ly/3jHh1xz.