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Firm teachers union stance means LAUSD will be slower to reopen than other parts of state

LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner gets the COVID-19 vaccine.
Sosse Bedrossian, director of nursing services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Supt. Austin Beutner on Monday, the first day that all school staff in the county became eligible. Beutner was among 1,000 district employees to receive shots in the parking lot of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A huge boost in the number of vaccines targeted exclusively for the Los Angeles Unified School District could lead to in-person classes in the current academic year, but the district won’t bring students back to campus for at least six weeks — a return that also depends on the continued decline of coronavirus infection rates.

The lack of a firm return date is tied to demands by the teachers union. Teachers and counselors will not return to school until all have been offered vaccines and have achieved maximum immunity, union leader Cecily Myart-Cruz said Monday. Her union, United Teachers Los Angeles, also has set standards for lowered coronavirus infection rates that have yet to be achieved.

The union stance comes as the vaccine supply for LAUSD school staff greatly improved Monday, the first day of vaccine eligibility in L.A. County for the education sector.

First, the county upped its allotment to the nation’s second-largest school system to 8,800 this week and 8,800 next week, said L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner. Second — and the clincher — is that the district will receive its own allotment of 25,000 vaccinations from the state, a figure confirmed both by Beutner and an official with the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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Beutner called the promise of 25,000 immunizations a “game changer” that would allow for a faster reopening of elementary campuses and services for students with high needs.

“Governor Newsom has made vaccinations for school staff a priority from the beginning and is ensuring that’s the reality on the ground in the communities we serve,” Beutner said in his weekly broadcast on Monday.

A cautionary note was sounded by county education office Supt. Debra Duardo, who helps oversee the distribution of vaccines among all the county’s 80 public school systems. Last week, her office had unveiled a formula that attempted to apportion the limited vaccine supply by taking into consideration enrollment, poverty, the prevalence of COVID-19 and the number of school employees already at work on campuses.

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The new, special allocation to L.A. Unified — where 80% of students come from low-income families — somewhat undermined that approach.

“It is encouraging that more educators have access to vaccines,” Duardo said. “But I am advocating that available vaccines be allocated fairly and equitably among all of Los Angeles County’s 80 districts.”

All school systems got some vaccines this week — but they’ll need more.

Guidelines released Thursday show California’s new program earmarking 10% of COVID-19 vaccines will be reserved for K-12 school employees and those who work in child care positions.

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The Palmdale Elementary School District, where 90% of students come from low-income families, received 450 vaccines, said Supt. Raul Maldonado. The district has 3,100 employees and also will have to share 17% of its vaccines with two charter schools.

Montebello Unified, with an 84% student poverty rate, received about 320 doses to begin the work of vaccinating some 3,200 employees directly serving students, said Supt. Anthony Martinez.

In sheer numbers, L.A. Unified has more economically struggling families than any other school system in California and more areas devastated by the pandemic, which is why the state is providing special help to the district, according to the Newsom administration.

Beutner has said 25,000 doses are needed to vaccinate staff at all district elementary schools serving about 250,000 students. That figure would inoculate school staff — such as teachers, administrators, plant managers and food service workers — and necessary off-campus support staff, such as bus drivers.

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With those doses imminent, the district on Monday suggested mid-April as the time frame for a return. Under state guidelines, district elementary campuses are eligible to reopen now — an ongoing frustration for thousands of parents who want the option to send their children back.

In opposing a faster return, L.A. teachers union president Myart-Cruz said the union was fighting for other parents — Black and Latino parents from the communities most damaged by the pandemic.

The plan offers incentives to districts that offer in-person instruction in counties with fewer than 25 new daily coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents.

“Some voices are being allowed to speak louder than others,” Myart-Cruz said. “We have to call out the privilege behind the largely white, wealthy parents driving the push for a rushed return.”

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On the logistics front, the district took a high-profile step Monday, opening a mega-vaccine site for its staff in a parking lot outside of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, which is outside the boundaries of L.A. Unified. The district also has three sites within its boundaries. Among them all, the district could handle up to 13,000 doses a day — if the doses were available. Non-district vaccination sites across the county also have plenty of underused capacity as doses remain in short supply.

Esther Hatch, a supervision aide at one school and a parent representative for another, was among the 1,000 school workers vaccinated Monday.

“I was blessed to wake up this morning and grateful to be in line,” she said. “And I just felt emotional and, you know, overwhelmed with joy when the needle went into my arm.”

Her son, a 10th-grader at San Pedro High School, is managing well academically in online classes, but feeling isolated and sometimes depressed.

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“He wants to be in class — not just with his friends but also interacting with his teachers.” Hatch said.

L.A. Unified has no time frame for reopening middle and high schools — and secondary campuses are not yet eligible to reopen at current infection levels.

School board member Nick Melvoin said more families should have the option to return to campus available much sooner, but that the “political reality” is that students will have to wait as labor negotiations continue.

Union leaders oppose a return to campus until infection rates in L.A. County drop to a seven-day average of seven daily infections or fewer per 100,000 residents. That would allow the county to exit the state’s purple tier, which signifies the worst level of community spread of the coronavirus infection.

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Negotiations are scheduled for this week — as is a membership vote seeking an endorsement of the union’s negotiating position.

Adding urgency to the talks is a tentative deal between Newsom and the state Legislature that would provide additional funding for school districts that reopen quickly.

Myart-Cruz criticized the incentives as out-of-touch with the situation in L.A. Unified.

“That money will only go to white and wealthier schools,” she said. “This is a recipe for propagating structural racism and it is deeply unfair to the students we serve.” She added: “The plan does not supersede our legal right to bargain … and our continued determination to do so.”

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Other smaller districts also face reopening challenges. El Rancho Unified Supt. Frances Esparza offers no apologies for the delay in her district, which serves Pico Rivera in southeast L.A. County, an area hit hard by the pandemic.

“I have had staff pass, parents and grandparents pass, all in the same week — one student lost her mother and grandmother within three days,” Esparza said. “This is our reality and the fact that there is a push to return to in-person instruction without the vaccines is ridiculous.”

Her district received doses for 230 employees this week. About 1,000 more will have to wait a little longer.


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