Pointing to the city of Long Beach as a “demonstrable leader” in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, particularly for inoculating teachers, Gov. Gavin Newsom Monday again pressured authorities across the state to accelerate all measures necessary to get students back to in-person classes.
Newsom has advanced measures to prioritize vaccinations for teachers — announcing recently that 10% of the all first-dose vaccines the state receives will be set aside for educators and childcare workers — but he insists schools can reopen before all those workers are inoculated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also said vaccinations are not a prerequisite for schools to open.
But many teachers’ unions — including United Teachers Los Angeles — have balked at that idea, suggesting the shots should be required and the state should reach a lower case-transmission rate before in-person classes resume.
The governor on Monday pointed to Long Beach’s already weeks-long effort to inoculate teachers, prompting the Long Beach Unified School District to announce last week it will resume in-person classes for students up to fifth grade on March 29. He called for Long Beach’s effort to be replicated by health officials statewide, but said resuming in-person instruction is “foundational and fundamental and critical for their (students’) social and emotional health.”
“It’s foundational in terms of getting this economy open,” Newsom said. “And if you care about women, you care about moms, particularly single mothers, there’s nothing more essential and more important we can do to support working women and single moms in particular than getting our youngest kids back into school in cohorts where we can do it safely. And Long Beach is not waiting around to do that. This mayor has been doing that for weeks and weeks. Thirty-five counties have been for weeks now administering doses of vaccines to teachers, but none at the level that Long Beach is doing. … I just want to applaud that. I want to recognize that and I want to encourage that to be replicated all throughout the state of California.”
Newsom has been pushing a $6 billion school-reopening plan in Sacramento, but negotiations with state legislators have stalled. The governor balked at plan announced last week by legislative leaders, saying it would actually slow the pace of school reopenings.
The debate over schools is raging across the state. In West Los Angeles Monday, dozens of parents and supporters rallied outside the federal building, calling for Los Angeles Unified School District campuses to reopen. Those parents said they were taking part in a “Zoom blackout,” which amounted to a boycott of students attending online classes.
Over the weekend, however, another group of educators and parents held a car caravan in downtown Los Angeles saying it’s still not safe enough to reopen campuses. UTLA officials issued a statement Monday saying the pressure to return to in-person classes “is political. It is not science.”
“It is unfortunate that educators are being targeted, and the pressure of preventing an unsafe return falls to us while our students and their families face economic devastation, illness and death,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said. “Local and state officials did not create the right conditions to return to schools for in-person instruction. They prioritized indoor malls, outdoor dining, gyms and card rooms while infection rates soared and school buildings remained closed. Now educators are being vilified for trying to protect our students and our communities.”
The union repeated its assertion that while L.A. County’s overall case rate has dropped, the numbers are skewed by dramatically low rates in wealthier neighborhoods, while some lower-income areas served by the LAUSD have rates that are 15 times higher than more affluent areas.
According to the union, its members will vote next week on the issue of returning to schools, with the union saying such a move should not occur until the county emerges from the restrictive “purple” tier of the state’s economic reopening roadmap, all staff are fully vaccinated or given access to the vaccine, and safety conditions are in place as schools, including protective equipment and a cleaning regimen.
Los Angeles County school districts were given the option of reopening last week when the county’s average daily rate of new COVID cases fell below 25 per 100,000 residents. Under state guidelines, school districts and individual private schools in counties that meet that threshold can submit safety plans to health officials, and once those plans are approved, they can resume in-person classes for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. Classes in seventh grade and higher cannot resume until the case rate falls to seven per 100,000 residents — bringing the county out of the “purple” tier.
About a dozen Southland school districts quickly had their plans approved, including Saugus Union, which began a hybrid of remote and in-person classes Monday for students in first- and second-grades. LAUSD also had its safety plan approved, but its campuses remain closed.
Superintendent Austin Beutner has set a goal of reopening preschools and elementary schools by April 9, depending on the availability of vaccines. But he said the district next week will again offer in-person instruction for special-needs students, as well as child care and athletic conditioning. The district had been offering those services late last year, but Beutner canceled all in-person activities when cases began surging in the county in November.
So far, teachers are not eligible to receive COVID vaccinations in areas overseen by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Long Beach and the city of Pasadena have their own health departments, so vaccinations are already available for teachers in those cities.
The county will make teachers eligible for the shots beginning March 1, along with other essential workers such as those in agriculture/food service and law enforcement. The LAUSD has proposed operating a mass vaccination site at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood dedicated to inoculating school workers.
The problem is the continued limited supply of vaccine. Newsom said Monday supplies will likely remain restricted through March, but with a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine possibly receiving federal approval this week, he anticipated supplies will dramatically improve by April.
“I’m very confident with J&J, the end of March, April, we’re going to start seeing things really ramp up. May/June/July: game changer, all of a sudden we’re at a completely different level. So I ask people, — mindful again of being optimistic but not overly optimistic — that over the course of the next number of weeks we’re still going to be in a constrained supply environment, but over the course of the next few months, you’re going to see throughput and opportunity to expand these tiers and expand availability and access.”
In the Saugus Union district, first- and second-graders were set to return for in-person classes on Monday. On Thursday, kindergarten and TK pupils enrolled in the hybrid program can return, while grades 3 and 4 will return March 1, and grades 5 and 6 on March 4, according to the district.
Students will be on a four-day, hybrid schedule and be divided into morning and afternoon sessions of about 2 1/2 hours.
Schools that do welcome students back 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.