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With 25,000 vaccines, L.A. elementary schools could reopen as soon as possible, Beutner says

A boy rolling a backpack and wearing a mask stands as a woman holds a thermometer to his forehead.
First-grader Felix Fuchs has his temperature checked by teacher’s aide Firoozeh Borjian at Alta Vista Elementary last week in Redondo Beach, where K-2 campuses have reopened under a waiver.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Supt. Austin Beutner said Monday that vaccinating 25,000 teachers and staff could lead to the reopening of elementary schools for a quarter of a million students as soon as state guidelines allowed, as the L.A. schools chief renewed his request for immediate access to the immunizations for educators.

Beutner stopped short of saying vaccines were a precondition for reopening, instead calling them “a critical piece to this reopening puzzle.” The L.A. teachers union, which is currently negotiating with the district on reopening issues, has said that vaccines are a prerequisite to their return.

“There are about a quarter-million students in preschool and elementary schools throughout Los Angeles Unified,” Beutner said in his weekly broadcast. “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.”

That target of 25,000 would include principals, teachers, bus drivers, custodians and librarians — school nurses already have access to vaccines.

L.A. County officials are not yet permitting the vaccination of teachers unless they qualify under another category, such as those age 65 and older. The county health department has not indicated how soon teachers will be immunized.

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The push to vaccinate teachers comes as dropping coronavirus case rates in L.A. County could soon reach the state-permitted threshold to allow for elementary schools to reopen.

In-person instruction has been available to less than 1% of students in the nation’s second-largest school system since March, when campuses closed and instruction moved online in response to the coronavirus crisis. And even those few with special needs were sent back home when coronavirus infections reached a new high during a December surge.

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.

Beutner emphasized Monday that L.A. County hadn’t yet met California’s standards that would allow for a general reopening of campuses, a point made in a joint statement Friday with five of seven school board members.

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“The problem is COVID levels in the Los Angeles area have not for a single day since March met the state standards for the reopening of schools,” the officials said. “We cannot break state law to reopen schools.”

They were responding to the threat of litigation from L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who wants the city to sue to force campuses to reopen as soon as possible. Buscaino is seeking to follow the lead of San Francisco, where city officials sued their school district last week.

L.A. school district officials chastised Buscaino in their statement: “If Mr. Buscaino had called any of us asking how the City of Los Angeles might help schools, we would have suggested they redouble their efforts to reduce the level of the virus and make sure teachers and all who work at schools get immediate access to vaccines.”

But there was separation between that perspective and that of board member Nick Melvoin, who noted — as have many others — that L.A. Unified could open right now to provide in-person services for students with special needs, such as those learning English and students with disabilities. State guidelines allow districts to bring in up to 25% of a school’s enrollment at a given time under this exemption.

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A planned resolution by Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino would direct the city attorney to sue the Los Angeles Unified School District to reopen campuses. He says the effort would be modeled on similar litigation in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, teachers and school district leaders reached a tentative agreement over the weekend covering key details of a return to campus. It must still be ratified by union members. The pact lays out scenarios for health conditions that have yet to be met.

For K-12 campuses to reopen, the agreement would require San Francisco to enter the red tier of the state’s coronavirus health metrics and also for returning teachers to be vaccinated, according to the California Federation of Teachers, which is affiliated with the union local. Under the red tier, the seven-day average of daily infections would be 4 to 7 per 100,000 residents.

The case rate in San Francisco — adjusted to allow for statewide comparison — is 12.5 per 100,000.

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The tentative San Francisco deal is stricter than recently revised state guidelines, relying instead on a previous version of state rules. The current state standard for reopening elementary schools is 25 per 100,000 with no vaccines required, meaning that San Francisco Unified is eligible to fully reopen its elementary schools without further delay. The standard for seventh through 12th grades — 7 cases per 100,000 — has not been achieved.

The proposed San Francisco agreement would allow schools to reopen without teacher immunizations if the city reached the orange tier, which would be 1 to 3.9 new daily cases per 100,000 residents.

The adjusted case rate in L.A. County is 38.7 per 100,000.

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.

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Union leaders are holding to a stricter standard than that of the state — even when teachers are vaccinated — as a measure to protect the families of the students they serve, said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined the Biden administration last week in reasserting that campuses could reopen without teacher vaccinations provided strict safety protocols were followed. Conclusions regarding data over school safety has been hotly debated.

It could be many months before vaccines would be available for children.


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