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L.A. school reopening contingent on full staff vaccinations, making for uncertain date

A teacher gets COVID-19 vaccination.
Pacoima Middle School teacher Abigail Abbott, 65, gets her COVID-19 shot from nurse practitioner Jiyoun Cho as Los Angeles Unified employees received their first doses of the vaccine.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles schools Supt. Austin Beutner on Tuesday presented a plan to the school board for reopening campuses that includes the full period needed for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, delaying the return of elementary students to early April at best.

School officials repeatedly targeted April 9 for a campus reopening date, but Beutner described the date as an estimate, saying that the crucial issue is access to vaccines for the 25,000 employees needed for the operation of elementary schools serving 250,000 students in the nation’s second-largest school system.

He discussed no timetable for the return of students in middle and high schools.

Beutner said that with sufficient doses, the district and its partners could provide inoculations for 10,000 people a day starting next week.

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“In one week we can vaccinate everybody we need to open elementary schools, and we can meet April 9,” the schools chief told the Board of Education. “If we get 2,000 doses a week, we won’t meet April 9 because we will not have vaccinated sufficient staff to be able to properly staff schools.”

“The whole team needs to be vaccinated,” he said.

Preschool and day-care workers across California say they are managing ad-hoc classrooms of older students while also caring for infants and toddlers.

Although schedules for a staggered, part-time return are still being worked out, plans under consideration would give parents a choice to keep their children on fully remote learning.

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Reopening was not before the board for a vote — and members voiced no objections to Beutner’s characterization of the situation. Board member Monica Garcia asked staffers to make it clear to the public that the district was not at fault for any delay in vaccinations and that the allocation of doses depends on county and state officials.

Board members Jackie Goldberg and Kelley Gonez said they supported a cautious approach to reopening because the pandemic has caused great harm in communities they represent — in Southeast L.A. County and the Pacoima area — and infection rates far exceed the county average.

Beutner made his case for vaccines as the United Teachers Los Angeles union is scheduling an internal vote for next week on whether its members would refuse to return to campus without maximum immunity — which requires five to six weeks after the first of two shots. UTLA represents more than 30,000 teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors.

Under California regulations, vaccines are not a precondition for a return to work by so-called essential workers — which include teachers. And both the Biden administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stipulated that campuses can be operated safety without vaccinated employees — provided that safety measures are strictly followed.

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That’s also the position of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said a vaccine requirement would probably end hopes for in-person schooling this spring in many places.

However, teachers in some districts, such as San Francisco and San Diego, are winning this concession.

The San Diego Unified School District, the state’s second-largest, on Tuesday announced a vaccination effort under which all “teachers who wish to be vaccinated have had the opportunity to do so,” according to a release. In addition to waiting for full immunity, the planned April 12 reopening requires San Diego County to return to the “red tier,” which is a one-level improvement over “purple,” which signifies widespread community transmission.

With parents and children tired of living as Zoombies — and state and federal governments pushing to reopen schools — momentum builds against the go-slow approach of the Los Angeles teachers union and L.A. school district officials.

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“From the start of this crisis, we have remained committed to reopening when it was safe and responsible to do so,” said San Diego Unified Board President Richard Barrera. “Full vaccinations for educators are part of that safety plan.”

Long Beach Unified, the second-largest district in L.A. County, has been working with the health department for the City of Long Beach in a vaccination program for school staff that began in late January.

L.A. Unified falls within the jurisdiction of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, which will officially open up vaccines to school staff on March 1. That’s also the day that Newsom has pledged to begin allotting 10% of immunizations for the education sector. However, the share going to L.A. County could be as small initially as 10,000 doses a week; county officials estimate there are about 691,000 school staff and child-care workers eligible for this set-aside.

Although school officials want more, the county will provide 3,000 doses this week to inoculate employees 65 and older and those working at the district’s coronavirus testing or vaccination sites.

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In some areas, momentum among parents to push for reopening is building, although many parents also are wary of returning. L.A. Unified intends to survey families about their preferences in the next two weeks or so.

At Tuesday’s meeting, in response to board member Nick Melvoin, district staffers acknowledged that additional district employees have been eligible for shots for weeks, such as therapists in the areas of speech, movement and behavior, as well as psychologists. Melvoin suggested that these workers could be brought back sooner to help students in person. Senior staffers replied that they would begin to track these eligible workers and their vaccination status.

The district also clarified that limited in-person services and instruction would resume for students with special needs on March 4. Athletic conditioning and child care for employees also would resume. Left-over child-care slots would be provided to help homeless families and students in foster care.


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