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L.A. Councilman Buscaino announces plan to sue L.A. schools to reopen

L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino at an October news conference.
L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, left, at a news conference in October to address crime issues in South Los Angeles. On Thursday, he announced a plan to sue L.A. campuses to reopen.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino announced Thursday that he will ask the city to go to court to force campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District to reopen for in-person instruction.

Campuses have been closed in the nation’s second largest school system since March in response to the coronavirus crisis. The debate over reopening has reached intense levels in California and beyond, with strong emotions among parents, teachers and school leaders, high political stakes for public officials and direct ramifications for families struggling against the pandemic as children’s education suffers.

Buscaino said he plans to submit a resolution next week, for consideration by the full council, that would direct the city attorney to file a lawsuit modeled on one announced this week by San Francisco officials, who have initiated litigation against the San Francisco Unified School District. In part, the suit accuses the district of not complying with state requirements to offer classroom-based instruction to the extent possible under health constraints.

Earlier litigation — filed on behalf of advocacy groups — that made similar arguments against L.A. Unified was unsuccessful.

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The Los Angeles action is justified, said Buscaino, based on a growing body of research assembled by federal experts, Biden administration policy aimed at reopening schools and the great harm to students pursuing their studies remotely from home.

Buscaino said he also was influenced by a statement this week from the Southern California affiliate of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which called for an immediate reopening of schools.

San Francisco, frustrated that K-12 classes remain closed as education leaders rename schools, sued the district Wednesday to force a reopening.

“I actually agree with the pediatricians,” Buscaino told The Times. “I support the science that says it’s safe for students to return to schools. Let’s get the adults out of the way, the politics out of the way.”

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The mayor’s office and the city attorney’s office had no immediate comment.

There also was no immediate reaction from L.A. Unified or United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses in the school system of 465,000 kindergarten- through 12th-grade students.

The district and union are in negotiations over what a return to campus would look like. District campuses remain in a hard lockdown, with all services online since mid-December, in response to an explosive surge of COVID-19 that overwhelmed hospitals.

Although Los Angeles County coronavirus infections are on a sustained decline, they are still too high for campuses to fully reopen. However, if the downward trend continues, elementary campuses could open within a few weeks.

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Even at the current rates, state guidelines allow schools to bring in up to 25% of enrollment at a given time to serve students with special needs, such as those with disabilities, students learning English and younger pupils. Some school districts have taken advantage of these exceptions — and tend to be located in communities that are more prosperous and with lower infection rates.

That issue of inequity between richer and poorer is among the factors that Buscaino said he finds troubling. He’s also unhappy with his own experience at home, noting that he has a child who is struggling with having to learn math online.

The councilman said he’s supportive of L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner for such efforts as developing a campus-based coronavirus testing program and hopes that the litigation strategy will ultimately hasten a safe reopening of campuses that Beutner and others want.

Buscaino’s lawsuit gambit comes one day after Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that campuses can safely reopen even if teachers are not vaccinated against COVID-19 — provided that schools strictly adhere to safety protocols.

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The CDC has generally endorsed efforts to reopen campuses, but during the Trump administration this message became tied up in political considerations.

The harms of ongoing closures outweigh the safety risks of carefully managed classrooms, according to a regional pediatrics association. Some experts take a different view.

The advent of the Biden administration restores a level of trust that federal officials are trying to do the right thing — and are guided by data and science, Buscaino said.

While expert opinion leans toward the conclusion that campuses can be operated safely during the pandemic, the views are far from unanimous.

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Teacher unions, especially in California, are pressing for vaccinations for school staff as a precondition for reopening campuses. And some say that measure may not be enough to reopen safely when the virus is spiking to especially dangerous levels.

The debate over school reopenings intensifies as pediatricians call for it, city leaders in San Francisco sue for it. Newsom says vaccines for teachers can’t be a prerequisite. Teacher unions push back.

The California Teachers Assn. on Wednesday said teachers who return to classrooms should have immediate access to inoculation.

The CTA criticized the San Francisco litigation, calling it the “wrong approach” that “if successful could place the school district in the position of delaying reopening or even reopening unsafely.”

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“Educators are disappointed the city has chose to attack rather than support the school district,” spokesperson Claudia Briggs said. “We urge the City of San Francisco to work cooperatively with the school district and its employees.

Buscaino, who is married to a public school teacher, said he supports giving higher priority to teachers for vaccines. But he doesn’t want immunization to be a prerequisite for reopening.

Buscaino’s district stretches south of downtown from Watts to the Harbor area.


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