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Middle and high schools in L.A County could be eligible to reopen within days

A staff member sprays sanitizer at Burbank Middle School.
Adrian Pacheco sprays sanitizer at Burbank Middle School at a demonstration in August with L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner, center.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Middle and high schools throughout Los Angeles County could be eligible to open within days, with L.A. Unified aiming for a late April reopening of its secondary campuses, marking a major turning point in the pandemic that has forced the closure of California schools for nearly a year.

Several sticking points, however, could lead to further delays in the nation’s second-largest school district, including the time it would take to get teachers and school staff fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the ability of the district and its teachers union to reach an agreement about school-day schedules and working conditions.

On the union front, there has been ramped-up activity: Negotiators met most days last week and over the weekend — and were scheduled to meet Monday as well. Sources from both sides said an agreement appeared to be within reach. And the agreement, they said, would encompass learning and working conditions for the full grade span — transitional kindergarten through 12th grade.

An agreement would clear uncertainties over the remainder of the school year and allow the district to present parents with new schedules and survey them about whether they would want to keep their children in distance learning.

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Parents have voiced a range of opinions about reopening: Participants at one rally urged a go-slow approach, while those at some other rallies demanded a resumption of in-person instruction. Communities hit harder by the pandemic — areas that are home to most of the district’s students — have been more reluctant to return quickly, according to surveys in L.A. Unified and other area school systems.

A widely followed school-reopening tracker puts California last among the 50 states in the pace of campus reopenings.

Elementary-school campuses in L.A. County became eligible to reopen Feb. 16, but middle and high schools have had to wait until viral levels in the community are lower because older children are more likely to develop COVID-19.

Also, their class schedules typically require more intermingling, said county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. a factor that increases the risk of transmission.

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“In the elementary schools, it’s really easy to keep people in relatively stable groups,” Ferrer said at a media briefing Monday. “Intermingling with lots and lots of people is what makes it easier for this virus to spread, and in high schools and junior highs that intermingling is going to be a lot harder to manage.”

Secondary schools are about to get a green light because of falling coronavirus infections and because the state is somewhat easing its rules for reopening — to coincide with increased numbers of vaccinations in areas where the virus was most widespread, Ferrer said.

Beutner’s announcement about secondary schools comes one week after he set a goal of mid-April for elementary schools, stepping back slightly from an original target of April 9. Under county health guidelines, elementary campuses could have opened last month.

But in public statements, Beutner and school board members have largely been in agreement with United Teachers Los Angeles, which has demanded that employees receive access to vaccines as well as enough time for maximum immunity to take effect before being required to return to campus.

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“We’re making progress in our plans to reopen schools,” Beutner said in his weekly Monday broadcast. “The target remains mid-April for preschool and elementary school students, as well as students with learning difficulties and disabilities, and the end of April for secondary schools. Our goal is to do this as soon as possible and in the safest way possible. Not in any way possible, the safest way possible.”

Last week, the union leadership reiterated that it would oppose a return to campus if it concluded that conditions were not safe enough for employees, students and their families. The union also held a referendum in which it asked members to support its negotiating position.

In a mailing to members, union leaders said a “no” vote — against the union’s position — “means you are willing to physically return to your school or place of work under unsafe conditions.” In the referendum, 91% of those casting ballots said they supported the union’s stand.

Union President Cecily Myart-Cruz announced the results in a broadcast with two supportive parents.

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Lois Tryk, who has one child at Micheltorena Elementary in Silver Lake and another at Irving Middle School in Glassell Park, said she trusted teachers to tell her when it was safe enough to return, adding that one additional death from COVID-19 due to a reopened campus is unacceptable.

Alicia Baltazar, who has a child at Fries Elementary in Wilmington, said she does not agree that children are experiencing significant academic loss and said they have learned other valuable lessons this year, including the importance of family in their lives.

“So our children are not learning what you think they should be learning right now, but they are making leaps and bounds when it comes to technology,” Baltazar said, referring to ongoing online schooling. In addition, “they are learning social ways right now, like for instance, they’re learning how to budget, as they’re seeing their families go through ... financial situations at home, due to job losses and things like that.

“They’re learning survival by going with their parents to these Grab and Go’s,” she said, referring to the district’s free meal distribution program.

L.A. Unified is among the school systems that are reopening much more slowly. Some, including Long Beach, are moving faster because they were able to obtain access to vaccines sooner. Others, mostly in more affluent areas, began reopening without vaccines. State and federal guidelines have encouraged schools to open without vaccines for employees, provided that strict safety protocols are followed.

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“While other cities in California, like Long Beach, got a head start when local health authorities there started with vaccinations for school staff back in January, we’re working as hard as we can to make up for lost time,” Beutner said.

The district has estimated that 25,000 employees would need to be vaccinated to reopen elementary schools. The district is on track for that goal, Beutner said.

So far, “35,000 of them have received their first dose of the vaccine, are making appointments to do so or have decided they don’t wish to receive the vaccination at this time,” Beutner said. “The further good news is, so far, only about 10% of employees have told us they don’t want to be vaccinated at this time.”

In his remarks, Beutner also sought to build public confidence that campuses are fully prepared right now to operate safely. His broadcast included a video visit to Panorama High School in Panorama City: “I would wager it’s the cleanest school in the nation.”

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The schools chief said the district is doubling cleaning staff, at a cost “upward of $60 million,” and has already spent more than $25 million on personal protective equipment and nearly $10 million to upgrade air-filtration systems.

Officials are trying to convince both parents and employees that schools will be safe. In many districts around the nation, fewer than half of students returned when campuses reopened. Under California law, staying in distance learning will remain an option for students and parents reluctant to return during the current school year.

Union leaders have listed safe operating procedures as another condition for the return of their members.


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