Once again, the news is good for local COVID-19 stats this week, with case numbers, test positivity, hospitalization, and death rates all still trending down.
But with this good news, the debate over re-opening schools for in-person instruction has been heating up again in a big way. Over the last week, LA City Council Member Joe Buscaino has hinted at possible legal action if schools don’t re-open, and LAUSD Superintendant Austin Beutner has fired back that despite falling case numbers, LA is still nowhere near the numbers required to re-open safely according to state guidelines.
Backing up a bit, on Thursday, February 4, City Council President Pro Tempore Buscaino, whose wife is an LAUSD teacher and who has school-aged children, threated that the city could sue the school district if it does not re-open for the good of its students. But Beutner quickly responded on Friday with a terse statement, calling Buscaino’s threat a “political stunt,” and noting that the District has done everything it needs to do to prepare for a safe re-opening, but Los Angeles – which is still in the Purple (or Widespread) tier for transmission of the virus – just doesn’t yet meet the state’s legal threshold for resuming in-person instruction. “COVID levels in the Los Angeles area have not for a single day since March met the state standards for the re-opening of schools,” said Beutner in his letter:
Today, in his weekly address to the community, Beutner both reiterated and expanded on this message, carefully outlining the numbers that back up his position, and firmly stating that while the District is both ready and eager to re-open, the ball is now in the court of state and local governments to reduce the spread of the virus in the community, and to provide vaccinations for LAUSD staff (something that was de-prioritized by California Governor Gavin Newsom last week as he announced on January 26 that the state is shifting to an age-based priority system for vaccines and moving away from priority vaccinations for front-line workers, including teachers).
“For 332 days, my day has started and ended with the same question: What can we do to get students back in the classroom as soon as possible and in the safest way possible?” Beutner said in the address. So “This renewed political interest feels like an echo from last July. Federal officials at that time suggested students need to be in school and, like a Nike ad, told educators, “Just Do It.” We all know the best place for students to learn is in a school setting. While Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz might have said, tap your heels together three times and say, ‘There’s no place like home,’ and you’ll be there, actually returning to schools is not so simple.”
It’s All About the Numbers
Beutner emphasized that re-opening schools is not an arbitrary decision, and said he is bound by state rules about safe levels of COVID-19 transmission, which Los Angeles County does not yet meet:
“…schools in Los Angeles Unified remain closed because the state law says they must be closed. Let me be clear about this. School classrooms are closed because it is against the law for schools in Los Angeles Unified to reopen due to the continued dangerously high level of the virus in the communities we serve. The current state standard for the level of COVID-19 is not being met in Los Angeles County and, while the standards have changed over time, virus case levels have not met the standard to reopen schools for even one day in Los Angeles since the state created the standards in August.”
According to Beutner, California public health standards say schools with grades K-6 can reopen “when the adjusted rate of new daily COVID cases is below 25 per 100 thousand population. Secondary schools can reopen only when the adjusted case rate falls below seven cases per 100,000.” But so far, he explained, Los Angeles County case rates, as shown by the black lines in the graph below, are still far above the state-set levels for re-opening in all grades (blue line in the graph below is the elementary threshold, red line is the secondary threshold).
So Why Can San Francisco’s Schools Re-Open if Ours Can’t?
Beutner said he is often asked why schools have been allowed to re-open in San Francisco but not in Los Angeles…and the answer is once again in the numbers.
“San Francisco authorities worked together and brought the rate of infection under control and the area for some time has met the state standard for school reopening,” Beutner said, “But that’s just not the case in Los Angeles. Until the community spread of the virus remains below the thresholds the state has set for the reopening of schools, our campuses must remain closed. That’s the law.”
And the differences were again illustrated in images Beutner provided, with the blue lines showing LA numbers in the graph below, and San Francisco trends illustrated in red:
Beutner also provided raw numbers showing the difference in both positive test rates and daily case rates per 100,000 people in the two cities (as noted above, the state-mandated threshold for re-opening schools is 25 cases per 100,000 people, and a positive test rate less than 7%). San Francisco meets both thresholds; LA does not.
But Other Businesses Have Been Allowed to Re-Open…
In his remarks, Beutner also dealt with the question of why other businesses and institutions have been allowed to re-open in LA County, but schools have not, saying he, too, is frustrated by that contradiction.
“A recent San Francisco Chronicle story illustrates a seemingly contradictory response to getting COVID levels down to the point where schools can reopen,” Beutner said. “When California Governor Newsom relaxed restrictions for communities across the state in late January, both Los Angeles and San Francisco quickly followed suit. Los Angeles County’s case rate then was about 97 per 100,000 residents compared with 27 in San Francisco. But when the stay-at-home order was put in place back in early December, LA’s case rate was about 39. LA reopened at 97 after closing at 39. How does that make sense? LA’s rate of those testing positive when reopening, about 10%, was nearly identical to that which caused closure in December and currently triple that in San Francisco, the hospitalization rate is nearly triple and the death rate is more than four times that in San Francisco.”
So Beutner agreed that “…we are owed an explanation on what changed between the authorities’ views in December and their actions more recently. If teens can now go to the mall together, surely they can be at school and on practice fields in a carefully supervised setting with strict health protocols in place. Or if the risk of the spread of the virus is too great, then let’s close the malls to keep everyone safe and reduce the level of the virus so that schools can open.”
What Has to Happen Before LA Schools Can Re-Open
According to Beutner, three things have to happen before we can re-open Los Angeles campuses for our 250,000 students in grades K-6: lower levels of virus transmission, vaccinations to help protect LAUSD staff, students and families, and the insititution of strict safety protocols at all LAUSD campuses. But Buetner says this last requirement, the only one fully under the control of LAUSD, has already been met.
“While school campuses have been closed, we have been hard at work getting them ready for students to return.” In fact, he said, “Los Angeles Unified has done more than any school district in the nation to prepare schools to welcome students back to in-person classes.” The LAUSD accomplishments include:
• Retrofitting 80 million square feet of school buildings to ensure the air is filtered to remove any virus, using Merv-13 filters, which are akin to N-95 masks.
• Cleaning and sanitizing every room in every school, with further preparations to do so every day when students and staff return.
• Reconfiguring the layout of each school to spread out the desks and workstations to ensure six feet of separation.
• Installing health-screening stations at each school entrance to make sure no one enters who has a fever or exhibits other COVID-19 symptoms.
• Adding plexiglass partitions in offices and other work spaces.
• Designating hallways, walkways and stairways for one-way traffic only to keep students and staff six feet apart.
• Implementing rules requiring rigorous disinfection between users of any shared equipment like printers, telephones and keyboards.
• Placing hand sanitizer stations throughout schools.
• Creating the most comprehensive school-based testing and contact tracing program in the nation.
• Training staff on health protocols and practices.
Also, Beutner announced that FAM Brands, a local clothing and fitness wear manufacturer, “is donating 3.6 million reusable cloth masks, so that every student will receive a package of six masks…the day they return to school.”
Safe Re-Openings are Possible Under the Right Conditions
If LA County can meet the required transmission thresholds, Beutner said, he does believe schools can re-open safely. “Schools in Baltimore have had no in-school transmissions of the virus since reopening late last year,” he said. “The state of Illinois, where 39 percent of students have returned to class, has not had a single reported case of in-school transmission.”
“We take the responsibility to keep students and employees safe very seriously and have been working with a world-class team since June helping us understand these issues. We’ve brought together three research universities, three healthcare providers, two labs, and a leading technology giant to provide us with the best possible advice, tools and technology to reopen schools in the safest way possible.
We have put in place every safety measure the CDC recommends and we’ve gone a step beyond with our COVID testing program at schools,” which have provided nearly half a million COVID-19 tests so far.
Vaccinating Staff will Help Open Schools
As for vaccinations, Beutner said it will take only about 25,000 staff vaccinations to allow the district to re-open schools for 250,000 K-6 students.
“Vaccinating school staff will have an enormous impact on society,” Beutner continued. “Let me share a simple math exercise to make the point. There are about a quarter-million students in preschool and elementary schools throughout Los Angeles Unified. To vaccinate all who work in these schools, who are not otherwise already eligible, we would need to vaccinate about 25,000 people. You heard that right – vaccinating 25,000 people will allow us to reopen elementary school classrooms for 250,000 children and help their half million plus family members start on the path to recovery and allow many of them to go back to work.”
So Buetner said he disagrees with the state’s prioritization of vaccinations only for those over 65 years old.
“…we don’t gain much by having an existential debate comparing a 66-year-old retiree living in a single-family home who can minimize outside contact with a 59-year-old reading teacher working in a classroom with young children from families hard hit by the virus, or a 64-year-old bus driver taking specialeducation students to school. All need to be vaccinated as soon as possible.”
LAUSD Schools Can and Should Help with Vaccinations
As he also noted in his weekly address last week, Beutner once again urged this week that schools themselves are uniquely positioned to help with the vaccinations he’s requesting.
“Last week the Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Hilda Solis, and I sent a letter to President Biden asking for the federal government to send additional vaccine doses to Los Angeles to help our schools provide vaccinations to people in communities most impacted by the virus,” Beutner said.
According to Beutner, LAUSD has the space needed for large vaccination setups, the know-how to set up such sites (especially since many schools are already being used at testing sites), and the trained staff to actually administer the vaccines. And the schools are located in the communities where staff and school families live, making it easy, especially for low-income residents without cars, to access the sites.
“For example,” Beutner said, “in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood where median household incomes are less than $33,000, there are just two drug stores, four fire stations and no stadiums to serve as potential vaccination sites. But do you know what Boyle Heights does have – 24 public schools. Vaccines provided at schools would offer a convenient option to families who are unable to participate in the nightly online lottery for vaccination appointments, lack access to transportation or cannot afford to miss a day of work to travel across town for a vaccination.”
Also, he said, “This partnership between the nation’s largest county and second-largest school district can serve as a model which can be replicated elsewhere in the nation to help achieve the Biden administration’s goal of vaccinating at least 75 to 80 percent of Americans by the fall.”
“So there you have it,” Beutner said, “Reopening elementary schools for about a quarter-million kids in three easy pieces:
• Get the community spread of the virus down to the level the state requires.
• Put the right set of health practices and protocols in place at schools.
• And vaccinate 25,000 people.”
“If all who care so much about schools can work together and create a whole of government response to this challenge, we can get this done. We can get the other two parts done.”
But, he said, “Threats of lawsuits, finger pointing and speech making won’t help. I call on every state and local official as well as every stakeholder in the school community to join us in the challenge. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. Call it the 60-day challenge to offer every young student the learning opportunity they deserve.”
A full transcript of Beutner’s remarks today is available here.