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Teachers need COVID-19 vaccine before L.A. schools can reopen, Beutner says

Austin Beutner wears a face mask and stands next to an "Eat Good Food" sign.
Supt. Austin Beutner tours one of the LAUSD’s Grab & Go food centers at San Fernando Senior High School last April.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Reopening Los Angeles campuses for students in kindergarten through 12th grade will require the vaccination of teachers and other staff, says L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner. The teachers union is going a step further, saying vaccinations alone would not be enough to operate schools safely until the community spread of COVID-19 is brought down.

Their stances throw into question whether schools will be able to reopen this academic year as there is currently no firm date for inoculating teachers. In parts of the state, including Los Angeles, dissatisfied parents are ramping up efforts to pressure campuses to reopen more quickly.

Vaccinations are a critical piece of the puzzle, and we’re all frustrated at the pace of the rollout despite everyone’s best efforts,” Beutner said in remarks broadcast Monday.

The L.A. schools chief called vaccines “the last piece to help reopen classrooms,” in addition to such measures as providing funding to operate campuses safely and consistent rules on when campuses should be reopening.

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“There’s a unique and important benefit to vaccinating all who work in schools — doing so will help reopen schools sooner,” Beutner said. “This will not only protect the health and safety of staff but will provide enormous benefit to children and their families with a faster reopening of schools and of the economy more broadly by enabling the working families we serve to go back to work.”

At this point, vaccines are not widely available locally for teachers and other school staff as the priority is focused on healthcare workers and those 65 and older. Long Beach, which has its own health department independent of L.A. County’s, is expected to begin teacher vaccinations this week. Several other smaller California school districts have begun to inoculate teachers, part of the patchwork of availability to educators across the state and nation.

L.A. County health officials have said publicly they are not yet ready to open up vaccines to teachers — suggesting immunizations may be available for them at some point in February, although even that timeline is uncertain due to limited supplies.

The two vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. require two doses: For one, the interval between doses is three weeks; for the other, four weeks. Experts have said that maximum immunity is expected about two weeks after the second dose.

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“The Biden Administration has set a goal of administering 100 million doses in the next 100 days,” Beutner said. “Two doses per person means 50 million people or about 15% of people in our country will be vaccinated by April 30, and 85% will still need to be vaccinated.”

The last day of instruction for the current school year is June 10.

Leaders of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, essentially agree with Beutner on the importance of vaccinations for school staff but also insist that vaccines will not be an immediate panacea. They want to see coronavirus infection rates drop significantly in communities served by Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system.

“We don’t believe that all employees being vaccinated is a sufficient trigger for the full reopening of schools, because neither vaccine currently on the market is proven to provide sterilizing immunity,” the union said in a bargaining update sent to members. “What this means is that children, who currently do not have a vaccine available for them, and especially the family members they go home to, could continue to be at risk. A safe path to reopening must include low community transmission and infection rates.”

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Beutner also made clear that he wanted to see lower community infection rates as well, as part of a strategy to open schools in the “safest way possible.”

The union and district are in negotiations over what a return to campus would look like. The two sides were unable to reach agreement Sunday — which was their self-imposed deadline. Those negotiations are continuing.

Polling data have indicated that parents have widely ranging views over the safety of reopening campuses for in-person instruction, although there is broad agreement that distance learning has hampered education for most students. A group of parents seeking the option to return announced the formation of a new group Monday, Open Schools California. The group has local sites in nine areas across the state.

A Los Angeles leader in the effort, Ross Novie, has two children in Palisades Charter High School on the Westside. His ninth-grade son has yet to attend a class in person at the campus.

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“We all want schools back this semester, and if vaccinating gets us there, that’s great,” Novie said. But “all of these other schools in other places went back without needing vaccines.”

Novie added that the current surge might temporarily limit options but that campuses could have reopened to more students in the fall and officials needed concrete plans and timetables for reopening.

Meanwhile, the spring semester is continuing online.

L.A. County health officials have advised against any reopening during the month of January. Recent trends show a decline in new cases, but infections still are well above levels that would permit a general reopening of schools under state guidelines. And this modest good news is tempered by evidence of emerging coronavirus variants found locally that could be more contagious or potentially more deadly.


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