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L.A. elementary schools rapidly approach reopening threshold, but teacher vaccines lacking

Students sit at spaced-out desks with plastic barriers
An after-school enrichment program at Rio Vista Elementary School in El Monte, where students have been unable to take their regular classes on campus. That could soon change if coronavirus infection rates continue to drop.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Based on current trends, elementary schools will be eligible to reopen in Los Angeles County quicker than vaccines will be made available to teachers, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told school leaders Tuesday.

The imperfect convergence of health conditions versus vaccines could soon force officials into a difficult choice and potential conflict with teacher unions: Open campuses when the state deems it safe enough or wait for teachers and other staff to receive COVID-19 immunizations as many are demanding.

Ferrer’s message — delivered in a private briefing for school leaders — contained hopeful news on the coronavirus infection rate. It’s dropping quickly enough to meet the state standard for reopening elementary schools as soon as next week, she said in a recording obtained by The Times.

“By next week, we will probably hit that threshold,” Ferrer said. “We are getting very close. ... Our case numbers are way down now, as we had hoped.”

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The rate would then have to remain at that level for five days — and prospects for on-campus classes still could dim if infections spike, a concern following Super Bowl parties and renewed outdoor dining at restaurants.

Once health metrics are achieved, the county would not direct schools on reopening decisions — it would be left to local school leaders, Ferrer emphasized.

With the school year rapidly slipping away, the issue of vaccines for teachers is at the center of negotiations between Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers.

She also noted that campuses operating under waivers for transitional kindergarten through second grade can remain open. Also, school districts currently have the authority to bring back up to 25% of enrollment at a given time to provide in-person services for students with special needs, such as those learning English or students with disabilities.

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Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, is providing no in-person services to its 465,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The district and teachers union are in negotiations over when and how to resume in-person services and instruction.

As for vaccines, however, Ferrer estimated that teachers and other school staff would not begin to be eligible for an estimated two to three weeks. And completing the vaccination process would likely take months. She noted that it’s been three weeks since those 65 and older began to receive vaccinations — and the effort has reached only 20% of that group.

Teachers would be in the same eligibility group as child-care providers, food and agricultural workers, emergency responders and law enforcement — a total of 1.6 million workers in the county.

“It will take many, many months to complete this,” Ferrer said.

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Counties have the authority to put school employees — or any other group in their tier — at the front of the line, but so far Ferrer and county officials are not willing to do that. Local discretion could change based on the outcome of negotiations over vaccines for school employees that involve Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature.

‘Vaccinating 25,000 people will allow us to reopen elementary school classrooms for 250,000 children and help ... family members start on the path to recovery,’ Beutner says.

At face value, Ferrer’s statements would seem to leave little hope for a full return to campus this school year — if vaccines are a prerequisite.

But Ferrer included some wiggle room. It might be possible, she said, for districts to set up “closed pods,” of smaller groups of employees targeted for vaccines, which could maximize reopenings for certain grades or selected schools.

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The vaccination process requires five or six weeks to achieve full immunity, but that timetable could speed up if a new one-dose vaccine by Johnson & Johnson is approved in the coming weeks, a development Ferrer noted in a presentation Tuesday to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

On another front, an L.A. city councilman’s bid to use litigation to force open L.A. schools has stalled amid a cool reception from other city officials.

Last week, Councilman Joe Buscaino announced he would ask the city to initiate litigation to force open L.A. schools to the extent allowed under state guidelines. He intended to model the effort on ongoing litigation involving the city of San Francisco and its school district. In that city, the mayor and city attorney have spearheaded the push.

However, by the time Buscaino’s motion appeared on paper, it had become a request for a report on legal options. Council President Nury Martinez sent the resolution to a committee for review.

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“Like every parent, I want the schools to reopen,” Martinez said in a statement. “My daughter wants to learn in a classroom and socialize with her friends. However, I am concerned about those who will be unintentionally affected by the reopening. After all, it takes a village. While we need to vaccinate our teachers before we reopen the schools, we also need to vaccinate the cafeteria workers, janitors, TAs, school bus drivers, who will be at risk if we don’t prioritize them as well. These are the essential workers at our schools, the ones who cannot afford to get infected and expose their families.”

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.

The person doing the review — if authorized — would be City Attorney Mike Feuer, who on Tuesday said in a statement that, “the best way to achieve these shared goals is to work together, not as adversaries. I will help in any way I can.”

Buscaino’s spokesman expressed frustration.

“The council member isn’t the mayor or city attorney, so the dynamic is a bit different” than in San Francisco, said communications director Branimir Kvartuc.

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The office of Mayor Eric Garcetti has declined to respond to the litigation proposal.

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.


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