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L.A. County elementary schools are cleared to fully open

People in car caravan hold signs and honk horns at rally to open schools.
People rally at the L.A. County Hall of Administration Monday in downtown to support in-person classes for students.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County elementary school campuses are cleared to fully reopen for the first time in nearly a year because of dropping coronavirus rates, health officials confirmed Monday night.

County Supervisor Janice Hahn tweeted out the news before the official confirmation, with a celebratory tweet in the late afternoon: “L.A. County has officially reached the State’s threshold for reopening elementary schools. Starting tomorrow, schools can reopen” if they have submitted and posted the necessary paperwork with county and state officials.

“This is what we have been working towards,” Hahn added.

The milestone will not result in an immediate reopening of campuses in Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system. District officials and the teachers union are in negotiations over what a return to campus would look like — and it isn’t clear that either side is ready for an immediate resumption of in-person instruction.

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Hahn’s announcement was based on communications between her office and county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. Hahn also has been monitoring improving health statistics closely.

The county had to maintain the coronavirus metrics for five consecutive days, which happened as of Monday. The key threshold is a seven-day average of daily coronavirus infections below 25 cases per 100,000 residents. On Monday, the official daily rate — which is adjusted based on the number of tests — was at 20 cases per 100,000, according to Liz Odendahl, Hahn’s director of communications.

Both the state and local health departments confirmed what the county department called “encouraging news.”

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“We are informing Los Angeles County schools tonight via an emailed letter that we expect to announce we have reached this threshold effective Tuesday, February 16,” the county health department said in a statement. Elementary schools that have already submitted or posted necessary forms can open this week.

The stunning turn of events capped a day of developments related to campus reopenings.

First, efforts to prioritize L.A. County school staff for COVID-19 immunization took a step forward with the announcement from the L.A. Unified School District that the first vaccination site based at a Los Angeles school will open this week.

Then, school leaders and their supporters — mostly from private schools — organized a demonstration urging the immediate reopening of campuses.

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The location for the L.A. Unified vaccinations will be the Roybal Learning Center, just west of downtown Los Angeles, with a scheduled opening Wednesday. Those eligible for immunization will be school district staff age 65 and older and district employees currently working at coronavirus testing and vaccination sites, “consistent with current public health rules,” said L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner in his weekly broadcast remarks.

Although school nurses of any age, and people 65 and older — whether or not they are school employees — have been eligible to receive vaccines elsewhere, the effort at Roybal is the first within L.A. Unified to target school employees. Overall, vaccine doses remain in short supply and it’s been difficult for many of those eligible to book appointments.

As of Monday, district officials were not certain how many vaccinations would be available this week at Roybal. Participation is by invitation only — and will do little to speed the reopening of campuses that enroll about 465,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

In-person instruction has been unavailable to the vast majority of about 1.5 million students in public and private schools countywide since March 2020.

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The growing impatience of many families and school leaders over shuttered campuses was expressed Monday in a car caravan demonstration downtown and a news conference, which involved mainly private school leaders.

“We’re all here today because of children ... children who do not have lobbies, children who do not have unions, children who need parents and adults to advocate on their behalf,” said Paul Escala, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “The kids can’t wait.”

The Archdiocese has been gradually reopening about 60 of its 188 L.A. County schools through previously approved waivers for students in transitional kindergarten through second grade. The vast majority of some 70,000 students remain at home.

Viewpoint School, a nondenominational private academy in Calabasas, also has partially reopened through an early elementary waiver.

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“K-12 schools have shown that we have the skill to open schools now,” said Head of School Mark McKee. “Now all we need is the will,” he added referring to public officials.

Also speaking at the news conference were a Los Angeles public school parent, two prominent pediatricians, representatives from other Christian schools and a spokesman for 24 Orthodox Jewish day schools.

Standing in for students was Sophia del Rey, 18, a senior at Village Christian School in Sunland.

“I’d be willing to wear a mask,” del Rey said. “I know my friends would be willing to wear masks. We’re really tired of doing school from home. I know so many of my friends who have really gone into therapy since the pandemic has started because of the amount of anxiety and stress that they have. I know that I’ve stayed up till 2 a.m. to reteach myself a lesson because I didn’t get to learn it in person at school.”

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Supporters in a car caravan honked incessantly as they circled the block around the county Hall of Administration. Some vehicles bore placards or painted messages such as “No More Zoom,” “Let Me Go Back to School” and “Beutner Resign,” while children waved from sunroofs.

Beutner, in his weekly broadcast remarks, had noted that state guidelines do not yet allow for a full reopening of any campus in L.A. County. But that was only as of Monday morning.

Both Beutner and the demonstrators praised new guidelines on schools from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and called for consistent directives at all levels of government.

Those at the demonstration, however, said they see the new CDC guidance as justification for an immediate return to campus, and sentiment was strong to open campuses at all grade levels. That does not appear to be Beutner’s view.

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Parents are sharply divided over the issue, while unions representing school employees point to gaps in the research around school safety and the deadly toll the pandemic has taken on low-income minority communities.

Beutner, who has called for using schools as inoculation sites, referred to vaccines for school staff as a “critical piece” of reopening. He has said that it would take about 25,000 immunizations to open the district’s elementary schools — once it is otherwise safe to do so. Union leaders have demanded vaccinations as a prerequisite for reopening.

‘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.

Neither state nor federal guidelines specify vaccines as essential for safe operation of campuses, provided that other comprehensive safety measures are carried out, a point emphasized at the rally.

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“We believe that teachers should be prioritized in the vaccination schedule,” said car caravan organizer Village Christian Head of School Tom Konjoyan. “We also know that the vaccinations are a major problem in the state of California, and we don’t think schools should stay closed until they figure out how to vaccinate everybody. We think we can do it safely.”


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