As we pass the one-year anniversary of our various COVID-19-related lockdowns this month, the news remains increasingly optimistic. But it’s also clear that our many inconveniences and organizational struggles are far from over.
First, though, the good news: as shown in the graph above, our 7-day average of new cases in LA County is continuing its firm downward slide, bringing us to the lowest numbers since last March when the pandemic first made its presence known in our area.
And it’s not only new cases that have fallen. According to CovidActNow, which aggregates data from a number of sources, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The New York Times, state and county dashboards, and more, Los Angeles County’s daily case rate is currently 5.5 per 100,000 residents (the threshold for re-opening schools was less than 7 per 100K for at least two weeks, which we’ve more than met), the infection rate is .72 (meaning an infected person now infects significantly less than one other person), our positive test rate is just 2%, and we’ve given at least one vaccination shot to 23.2% of our population.
Which means we’re probably now in the best position we’ve been in since the pandemic started.
At the same time, however, it’s important to recognize that we can’t let our guard down just yet. Risky behavior as more and more businesses and other venues re-open could reverse at least some of these good trends…and re-opening businesses and schools is a lot more complicated than just unlocking the doors.
For example, we reported a few days ago that a number of our local restaurants are planning a slow or delayed transition back to indoor dining…and for the last week, negotiations to re-open LAUSD schools have also been making headlines.
First, on March 10, the District announced its plan for re-opening schools after spring break, which involves a reduced school day, with students divided into cohorts that attend on alternate days. The plan also calls for various safety measures, such as frequent testing, distancing requirements, and – for middle and high schools – a hybrid learning plan that would keep most students seated in their home rooms and engaged in online instruction on their iPads, while supervised by a home room teacher who is also teaching their own students online.
Both UTLA and the LAUSD Board ratified the agreement, but even so, some teachers, and many parents, have expressed dissatisfaction with the plan. In fact, as the LA times reported today, LAUSD’s own survey of district families reveals that “fewer than 3 in 10 students” would return to school under the proposal.
“Of those families who submitted a district survey, 42% opted for a return to campus,” the Times reported. However, when factoring in families that did not return the survey (representaing about half of all LAUSD students), who will default to remaining at home if/when schools re-open, the Times said, “the numbers are stark.” Just “28% of elementary school students would return, 17% of middle schoolers would and 10% of high schoolers would.”
Also, according to the Times story, “Parents who live in areas hard hit by the pandemic or have students in middle and high school — where children must continue to learn online even when back in classrooms — are the least likely to send their children back to reopened campuses.”
In his weekly address to the community this morning, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner addressed the survey results, saying, “What we’ve heard so far [from district families] identifies a big concern, which arises from the disproportionate impact the virus is having on many of the communities we serve.”
Beutner tried to allay some of the hesitations by sharing a new video showing how the in-person school day will work for elementary school students:
One thing LAUSD will not be doing, however, according to Beutner, is following a new guideline set by the CDC on Friday, and also adopted by California today, revising the distancing requirement for classrooms from six feet between fully masked students to just three feet. That would allow more students to attend school at the same time, and could potentially eliminate the need for at least some hybrid classroom/remote programs.
But “putting more desks in the room won’t convince families that schools are safe,” Beutner said, urging local, state and federal governments to coordinate their guidelines and stick to them once set. “Standards which change, seemingly by the day or week, won’t help build public trust. And families won’t necessarily believe schools are safe just because a few politicians say schools should be open.”
What LAUSD will do, Beutner said, is work with a variety of community partner groups and agencies to get the word out about the importance of students returning to the classroom, and the safety of the District’s plans.
Also, Beutner noted that the survey shows that one of parents’ biggest concerns about returning children to school is the fear that they may become exposed to the virus and bring it home to vulnerable family members. So he stressed that LAUSD is working on making schools themselves vaccination centers for district families, and he announced that two such school-based family vaccination sites opened this week, with more to come. (Several other school-based vaccination sites – serving school staff – have been up and running for several weeks.)
At the same time, however, Beutner also stressed that the district is concerned about re-opening too fast and in reaction to political pressure, rather than based on strict adherence to established data-based guidelines…which is why middle and high schools, as of now, will still remain on the plan originally proposed:
“…we don’t believe it’s safe or appropriate to have 200 plus students and their teachers in a cohort at school and that’s exactly what would happen if high schoolers participated in all of their 6 or 7 classes in person. 12 students in the 1st period each go onto a different 2nd period class filled with other students and teachers. And so on throughout the day.
Just one person with the virus could pass it on to hundreds and just one person testing positive would cause all 200 plus people to be quarantined at home for an extended period of time. The goal is not just to reopen schools, it’s to keep all students and staff there safely.”
Finally, Beutner confirmed that the current plan is to begin welcoming some elementary school students back to campus right after spring break:
“Based on the progress we are making, it looks like we’ll start opening the first group of schools the week of April 12th. Current plans are to reopen about 50 elementary schools and 10 early education centers that week. Any issues that arise can be addressed and everything we learn can be shared in advance of the reopening of all elementary schools and all early education centers the week of April 19th. Specific dates for the reopening of individual schools will be shared by the end of this week.”
It may not be exactly the news you’ve been waiting for, but we’ve definitely come a long way from where we were – at the top of the peak on the graph above – just two short months ago.
[Note: this story was updated after its initial publication to clarify LAUSD’s position on the CDC’s new 3-foot distancing guideline.]