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In massive reopening effort at 1,400 L.A. public schools, safety is the priority

A man in a neon vest works in a classroom
Randy Lemons, a senior project manager, secures an HVAC unit in a kindergarten classroom at West Hollywood Elementary School in March.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The complex logistics of awakening 1,400 Los Angeles schools are reaching a crescendo this week with officials especially focused on safety — announcing plans to open 25 community vaccination centers and urging all returning families to sign their students up for mandatory coronavirus testing.

Principals are jiggering schedules. Families are pondering whether to return. Teachers are moving school supplies from bedrooms, kitchen tables and garages into classrooms. The nation’s second-largest school system is ramping up to welcome back 465,000 kindergarten-through-12th-grade students next week after 13 months.

Safety continues to be the crux of planning — as emphasized in remarks broadcast Monday by L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner. He reminded families of all that has been done — including “doubling” custodial staff and installing improved ventilation systems and filters as well as markers and barriers intended to keep just about every human aspect of the school experience six feet apart.

Beutner also gave returning parents an assignment: Get a free coronavirus test for children within a week of their return. The pre-test — available at sites throughout the district — is mandatory, and will be followed by weekly follow-up testing.

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“Please make sure your child gets COVID tested sometime this week if their school is reopening the week of April 12,” Beutner said.

Another part of the safety push is the district’s launch into the community vaccination effort.

The first two clinics are set to open Tuesday at Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles and Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles. The district is collaborating with St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, which will provide the doses of vaccine and the clinical staff to administer the inoculations. L.A. Unified will oversee community outreach and provide operational support.

A third vaccination center is scheduled to open Friday at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, in partnership with Northeast Community Clinics.

Already established vaccination sites are operating at only 57% of potential capacity because of the limited supply of doses, public health officials said Monday. Yet the school sites are aimed especially at reaching residents in low-income Latino and Black communities — where providing protection from COVID-19 is especially crucial to halting the pandemic, preventing serious illness and saving lives.

“Barriers still remain for many to receive a vaccination — access to technology, the lack of time or the inability to navigate the online vaccine lottery to find an appointment or the lack of access to transportation to a distant vaccination site,” Beutner said. “School-based vaccination efforts — in the neighborhood by trusted partners — can help solve these issues. Schools are in regular contact with the families they serve and are a trusted part of the community.”

Health authorities are eager to extend vaccination efforts to head off a potential fourth wave of infection — fueled by virus variants. There’s also concern that people will let down their guard prematurely as commercial activities accelerate, now that the county has left the red tier and entered the orange tier, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday.

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Vaccines became officially available to those 50 and older on April 1. All people 16 and older will be eligible on April 15.

The school district vaccines will be available immediately to those 16 and older who are family members of students and community members, said Cabot Petoia, a spokesperson for St. John’s. Appointments can be scheduled by phone and will be limited to residents of targeted ZIP Codes — part of the effort to reach under-vaccinated neighborhoods.

St. John’s requested that the appointment line phone number not be published because “people who are not yet qualified for the vaccine have a habit of flooding phone lines.” Instead, “St. John’s and LAUSD are doing direct grassroots/community outreach,” Petoia said.

About 4,500 doses will be available this week at Washington and Lincoln high schools. Across the county, nearly 400,000 doses are available at 391 sites this week, public health officials said.

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L.A. Unified will use a rolling reopening schedule, beginning next week with 61 elementary schools and 11 early-education centers. Next Monday, there’ll be a quick check-in online, but not a return to campus. Instead, students will work independently the remainder of the day while all school staff — principals, teachers, bus drivers, librarians, counselors, custodians, cafeteria workers and others — “review safety protocols and fine-tune schedules,” Beutner said.

Kindergartners and first-graders at those schools return on Tuesday.

“We’ll start with the youngest learners because many of them will be visiting school for the first time,” Beutner said. “This will help them get familiar with their routines.”

On Wednesday, it’s grades 2 and 3, followed by grades 4 and 5 on Thursday. Other elementary schools begin the following week, with middle and high schools the week after that.

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Families in kindergarten through grade 8 will have access to district-sponsored child supervision, when they are not in class, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. The same goes for district staff with school-age children. On Monday, the district also provided some help for district employees with children not yet in school. They’ll be eligible for a $500 monthly child-care subsidy.

About 5,000 full-time employees — with 7,300 children — are eligible for this program, according to the district. To receive the subsidy, employees must submit a form verifying their child’s enrollment in a state-licensed child-care program.

Over the last year, Beutner has pursued an aggressive public health agenda, including the launch of a district-run coronavirus testing operation.

A vaccination center for school district employees opened last month at the Rams’ SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. As a condition of returning to campus, the Los Angeles teachers union had demanded that its members have the opportunity to achieve maximum immunity, which the district agreed to, delaying the reopening timetable.

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The district-managed employee vaccinations allowed LAUSD officials to tabulate which employees had received vaccines and were ready to return to work. The district also prioritized workers necessary to reopen elementary schools.

The district’s coronavirus testing program and the extensive safety measures are expected to serve as confidence-building measures for parents weighing whether to send their children back to campus. Families can change their mind at two-week intervals.

About three in 10 district students would be returning based on survey results so far. Middle and high school students represent the greatest percentage who will remain in distance learning. In secondary school, students will not receive in-person instruction but will continue with online learning schedules from one classroom. Many have criticized the offering as “Zoom-in-a-classroom.”

The district elected to continue online instruction at middle and high school campuses to limit interaction among students and also to retain the current master schedule at this late date in the school year. Such absolute lack of mixing is not required by health authorities — provided that other safety measures are strictly followed, such as mask wearing and social distancing.


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