L.A. Unified gets 100 doses but needs thousands to reopen schools
One hundred employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District received a coronavirus vaccine Wednesday as officials demanded more so that schools could reopen — and as the City of Long Beach expects all employees at public elementary campuses to be vaccinated by Friday.
The small number L.A. vaccines represented a milestone — the district’s first school-based vaccine clinic — the new purpose for an otherwise-unused student gymnasium at Roybal Learning Center, just west of downtown. The students who would normally be using that gym were attending school online as they have since campuses shut down nearly a year ago.
In a folding chair behind a clear plastic face shield sat Raymundo Armagnac, educational resource aide at Denker Avenue Elementary in Gardena, who turned 65 three weeks ago. Vaccines were available only to school district employees 65 and older — there are about 3,500 in this age group — and to district employees working at a vaccine or coronavirus testing site. The district operates about 40 testing sites.
“It’s important because I have to be thinking about other people,” Armagnac said.
He’d received an email inviting him to reserve an appointment the previous morning — and was told to arrive for a 4:30 a.m. appointment. That was an error; the intended start time was 9 a.m. In another glitch, the vaccines arrived frozen solid and did not thaw until after 10 a.m.
The district had expected to receive 2,000 doses, said L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner, who hopes to get the rest before the end of the week. He would like much more, estimating that immunizations for 25,000 individuals of various ages would be needed to open campuses for some 250,000 elementary-school students.
The problem, said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, is that doses remain in short supply. Only 38% of residents 65 and older have received their first of two doses, she said Wednesday.
No doses are available to open a proposed “mega-vax” site for school employees at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, which could serve school workers from throughout the region. Beutner’s team submitted a 100-page operating plan to county officials in collaboration with Inglewood, the Rams football organization and healthcare companies.
Ferrer’s explanations about shortages do not satisfy L.A. school board President Kelly Gonez.
“The limitations are true, but it’s also about choices,” said Gonez, who attended the opening of the Roybal vaccine clinic. “It’s about decision-makers making choices to prioritize equity, like the communities of need that L.A. Unified serves, and about the decisions to prioritize children — and reopening our schools in the safest way possible.”
School board Monica Garcia agreed.
“California must be a leader in opening schools, and it means prioritizing the injections to school staff,” which would ultimately benefit families in hard-hit communities, Garcia said. “They deserve an express lane to a vaccine.”
On Tuesday, Ferrer appeared before the school board — and explained that other groups also had a powerful claim to vaccines: food-industry workers, law enforcement and other first responders. And many of them do not have the option of working from home, an apparent reference to teachers currently conducting classes online.
Ferrer also noted that nothing in county rules prevents L.A. Unified from opening elementary schools immediately. The district, she said, already has developed the necessary safety protocols.
The school system remains in negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles over what a reopening would look like. For now, union leaders say, county infection rates make it unsafe to return — a position echoed by at least two other district employee unions.
Ferrer’s target date to begin vaccinating school staff — part of a group of 1.8 million county workers — is March 1. And even then, the going could be slow: The county health department is currently receiving about 200,000 doses per week. Each person needs two doses and maximum immunity takes five to six weeks from the first dose.
The outlook for school employees is better in Long Beach, where all public-school employees serving kindergarten through fifth grade will have had access to first doses by week’s end, said Mayor Robert Garcia, a former college instructor.
Even though it’s in L.A. County, Long Beach has its own health department and controls the distribution of its allotted supply.
“As a former teacher myself, I believe that for teachers’ safety and the safety of the parents and grandparents who live at home, teachers should be vaccinated to safely reopen schools, and that includes other school staff as well,” Garcia said. “And that’s the position that we’re taking in Long Beach.”
Under a plan presented to the Long Beach Board of Education Wednesday, teachers in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade would return to campus on March 22. Students in those grades would have the option of returning on a staggered, in-person schedule starting on March 29. Older students would return in later weeks, health conditions permitting.
Back at Roybal, Pacoima Middle School teacher Abigail Abbott said she can hardly wait to greet her students in person.
Conducting classes by Zoom “is not conducive to learning,” said Abbott, 65, who teaches leadership and National Guard cadet classes. “Sometimes they stop coming and you try your best to reach out to them.”
The COVID-19 shot didn’t even sting as badly as a recent flu shot, she said.
“If I was in the classroom and I hadn’t had this vaccine, I think that it would actually affect my relationship with my students because there’d be that fear: Am I going to contract the virus if I get too close? Am I going to contract the virus if I go to the bathroom on campus or whatever you can think of?” she said. “That would always be in the back of my mind.”
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.
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