There’s been a lot of news about school re-openings flying around this week, but while news reports have announced that Los Angeles now meets official thresholds to re-open in-person instruction for some students, the recent relaxation of re-opening thresholds ahead of that announcement has raised questions, and there are still unresolved issues about teacher and staff vaccinations, and agreements between LAUSD and its teachers’ union, all of which must be worked out before public schools can open their doors.
To sort it all out, here’s a quick review of the news from the last few days.
LA County Says Schools Can Re-Open
On Monday, both the state and county announced that Los Angeles now meets official guidelines for re-opening schools. According to an annoucement from LA County health officials, quoted in the LA Times: “We are informing Los Angeles County schools tonight via an emailed letter that we expect to announce we have reached this threshold effective Tuesday, February 16.” And the Times said this means, “Elementary schools that have already submitted or posted necessary forms can open this week.”
Or, as explained in a series of graphics from LA County:
But also on Monday, in his weekly address prior to the LA County announcement, LA School Superintendent Austin Beutner noted that as of Monday morning, Los Angeles is still in the “Widespread” or “Purple” tier for virus transmission and there have been several recent relaxations in the federal, state, and local re-opening guidelines, which are cause for concern and highlight a need for more coherent, clear and consistent state and local standards.
One of the big changes Beutner has highlighted recently is the recent revision in the numerical threshold for school re-openings, which had originally been set at a 7-day average of fewer than 7 cases per 100,000 residents. In January, however, that standard was revised to fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 residents, which is significantly less restrictive.
“Changing and inconsistent guidelines undermine the trust all in the school community need to have that their schools are as safe as possible,” Beutner said in his address. “State and local authorities should align their guidelines and approaches with each other and with the federal views.”
These were some of the other inconsistent and/or confusing metrics Beutner pointed out in his address:
• The federal guidelines are based on a current full week’s worth of cases, the state uses a lagging daily average with cases from the prior week.
• California then “adjusts” the actual case rate based on a relative measure comparing the volume of COVID testing for counties within the state. No other state uses an adjusted measure like this one. The issue becomes apparent when the City of Los Angeles stops providing COVID testing at Dodger Stadium as it did recently, shutting down about 1/3 of the COVID tests in the area. Reported cases dropped significantly, in this case they should have by at least 1/3, but it’s hard to know how actual levels of the virus compare with prior weeks due to such a large change in the number of people tested. The adjustment factor at the state
level also changed significantly, both in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the state as a consequence of the reduction in testing. And the general public don’t have the ability to reconcile the state adjusted figures with the actual figures reported each day by local health authorities.
• The federal guidelines show red as the highest level of spread or what we can think of as bad. Yet in California, red is good because schools can reopen. Each of orange and yellow have different meanings in California versus federal guidelines and blue is good according to the CDC but we are lacking that color in
California. This all seems like an Ellsworth Kelly exhibit gone awry.
• State health authorities encourage Californians to dine out with friends, while Los Angeles officials forbid the practice.
Also, aside from expressing frustration with inconsistent guidelines and moving goalposts, Beutner for some time has been advocating for vaccinating teachers before allowing wide re-opening of schools, and has offered LAUSD campuses as vaccination sites. The first of those sites opens today at the Roybal Learning Center, but so far it is available only to those the state is currently allowing to be vaccinated: LAUSD employees over the age of 65, and licensed health care workers who are also LAUSD employees (such as school nurses). Beutner said last week that LAUSD would need to vacccinate 25,000 teachers before re-opening schools to children in the youngest grades. That’s a fairly small percentage of total LAUSD staff, but still quite a reach from where we are today.
Although that may change soon, too. On Tuesday, the state announced that teachers will be among those eligible for vaccinations in the next vaccination tier, which could begin as early as March 1. According to the LA Times yesterday:
“Certain essential workers in Los Angeles County, including teachers, will become eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations starting March 1, but will probably face competition as supplies are expected to remain limited.
The next pool of eligible Angelenos includes educators and child-care workers; food and agriculture workers, which include grocery store employees; and law enforcement personnel and other emergency responders.”
But even once LAUSD staff vaccinations get underway in a big way (which is probably still at least month away, and very dependent on vaccine supplies increasing from current levels), there’s still the issue of an LAUSD agreement with the teachers’ union, which hasn’t been reached yet, and will need to be before teachers can go back to work.
The good news on that front so far is that that the union and Beutner seem to be in sync about many details, such as the need for teacher vaccinations and certain campus modifications and protocols, which LAUSD has been busy implementing. But until negotiations are completed and a formal agreement is signed, teachers can’t return to the classroom.
In a statement yesterday, UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said:
“We are deeply concerned about comments by members of the LA Board of Supervisors calling for in-person elementary instruction while LA County remains in the deep purple tier. Doing so would almost certainly lead to an increase in infections and school closures, creating even more instability and frustration.”
And Myart-Cruz, too, expressed frustration with the changing messages from governmental agencies.
“Last year, the state said it was unsafe to reopen until infections fell below 7 cases per 100,000,” Myart-Cruz said in the statement. “Suddenly, as more infectious and fatal variants are spreading, the state claims it’s safe to reopen when infections are at 25 cases per 100,000.”
The union’s press release continued:
“Educators cannot support a broad physical reopening of schools until school staff required to work in person have access to vaccinations, LA County is out of the purple tier and reaches much lower community transmission rate along with strict multi-layered mitigation strategies in place — such as COVID testing, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation/quarantine procedures.
It’s disheartening that once again elected officials are discounting the families that LAUSD serves, who are overwhelmingly low-income families of color. Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander residents are dying at disproportionately higher rates and getting vaccinated at disproportionately lower rates. The COVID death rate among Latino residents in L.A. County remains triple the rate for white residents even as the recent surge recedes.
“Resuming in-person instruction when cases are so high and without proper health and safety protocols will result in a yo-yo effect of closures, upending the very educational stability that our students and communities deserve,” Myart-Cruz said.
Additionally, urban school districts like LAUSD need more reopening resources. As of now, state funding will disproportionately benefit white and wealthier communities, another hit to our most in-need students and families.
Amidst this reckless push, on Friday it was announced there is a 35% increase in a rare pediatric inflammatory syndrome linked to coronavirus, known as MIS-C, leading to more hospitalizations in school-aged children.
More than 65% of LAUSD parents surveyed said they do not want to return to in-person classes because of too-high infection rates, while LAUSD communities remain in the purple tier. If politicians want to listen to the true stakeholders — the parents of LAUSD students — then funding resources should be sent to support and improve distance learning for our neediest children and to control the pandemic.”
Finally, though, it’s worth noting that there are some deep divisions among the wider public, including parents of school-age children, on whether it’s safe to re-open schools right now, and whether vaccines for teachers are a necessary part of that equation. And while Beutner and LAUSD teachers are holding firm on the vaccination request, others – such as the LA Times, which published an editorial this morning claiming that “L.A. Unified is officially out of excuses for keeping elementary schools closed” – are losing patience.
So the tug of war continues, with a lot of pressure on both sides to give up just a few inches, and there will undoubtedly be much more news soon.
(The Buzz will also provide updates soon from local private and charter schools, which are bound by some, but not all, of the same constraints and consideration as LAUSD public schools.)
[This story was updated after its initial publication to add the graphics from the LA County Department of Health]