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L.A. teachers union drops demand for student vaccine mandate, but wants strict quarantines

Sixth-grade teacher Kelsey McFadden directs students standing outside in an L.A. campus.
Sixth-grade teacher Kelsey McFadden shows students where to stand outside her classroom at Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Mid-Wilshire last month.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles teachers union has dropped its demand for mandating that eligible students receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but the move appears to be more about bargaining strategy rather than a lack of support for the move.

The latest contract proposal, dated Sept. 2, also lays out a plan that would lead to additional and possibly longer coronavirus-related quarantines for students and staff.

“We continue to support a vaccine requirement for all eligible students to keep our schools safer and to help protect the most vulnerable among us, including children too young to be vaccinated,” union President Cecily Myart-Cruz said Friday.

The difference is that the union is no longer insisting on a mandate as part of an enforceable agreement with the district.

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The nation’s second-largest school system has already required vaccines for all teachers and other staff, a decision that was not opposed by the teachers union.

District officials had crossed out the student-mandate demand in their own counter. In interviews with The Times, they said that a student vaccine mandate was simply not an appropriate topic for bargaining and would be considered separately as a matter of policy.

Another evolving union issue pertains to quarantine rules, which determine whether a handful of students, dozens of students or more are sent home after being in close contact with an infected individual.

During the first week of school in L.A. Unified, about 6,500 students — 1 in 70 — were at home because of an infection or possible exposure to one in school.

Previously, the union had been calling for entire classes of younger students to be quarantined when anyone in that class — staff or student — tests positive for a coronavirus infection. The provision would have applied to sixth grade or below, where students are too young to be vaccinated.

The union’s latest proposal is not so sweeping, but it would apply to all grade levels, from pre-school through 12th grade.

The union wants to expand quarantines to apply to everyone, including fully vaccinated employees and students if they are close contacts with an infected person. A close contact is someone within six feet for 15 or more minutes over a 24-hour period.

Those who are vaccinated would have to quarantine for at least seven days. If they test negative at Day 5, they could return on Day 8 after the exposure.

The union quarantine proposal for vaccinated individuals, in essence, would return L.A. Unified to a policy the district abandoned last week. The district eased its rules to match county guidelines — which state that vaccinated individuals without symptoms can remain in class, although they must test “after the 5th day of exposure,” according to information posted by L.A. Unified.

For those who are not fully vaccinated, the union wants a full 10-day quarantine.

In contrast, the district does not specify the length of the quarantine period for those who are unvaccinated on its FAQ page. And this week, materials posted by county health officials stated that the department would “work with schools to determine [the] quarantine period” for the unvaccinated.

The purpose of quarantines is to limit the spread of coronavirus infections. But they also disrupt classes and upset family routines. Experts have tried to determine the practices that provide effective protection while limiting academic disruption. Three weeks into the school year, for instance, some students at Welby Way Elementary in West Hills already were entering a quarantine for the second time, according to notifications from the school provided to The Times.

There have so far been at least three outbreaks at the nearly 1,000 L.A. Unified campuses. An outbreak is three or more linked cases at a campus over a 14-day period.

The first was at Grant Elementary in Hollywood. Since then, there has been an outbreak at Halldale Elementary, in Harbor Gateway, west of Torrance, involving four linked active cases as of Friday. The school had 17 active cases overall. The third outbreak was in Tujunga at Plainview Academic Charter Academy, where there were three active cases, all thought to be linked.

“UTLA’s safety proposals reflect what staff and students have experienced with the full reopening of schools and the need to solidify safety protocols, some of which were in previous agreements with L.A. Unified, in recognition of the Delta variant’s increased transmissibility and potential for rapid spread,” Myart-Cruz said. “Health and safety continue to be top of mind for our entire educational community.”

But some parents and advocates insist the quarantines are going further than necessary.

The district already has stricter quarantine protocols than recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted Katie Braude, of the local advocacy group Speak Up, which is frequently at odds with the teachers union.

“We need to find a way to safely keep as many healthy kids in the classroom as possible,” Braude said.

The state’s quarantine guidelines also are less restrictive than the county’s. The state advises keeping students without symptoms in school after an exposure, provided that both individuals were wearing masks.

The negotiations with the union also include bargaining over wages and bonuses. At one point in the pandemic — with the economy shut down, tax revenue plummeting and uncertain federal aid — it looked as though layoffs and wage cuts were inevitable. Instead, tax revenue soared and federal aid came through. The result is historically high funding levels in the short term — with thousands of new staff positions authorized but difficult to fill.

The union’s latest proposal calls for a 6% raise effective last July, a $2,500 “one-time stipend” for all full-time members and a $2,000 “technology stipend” for all members who worked at least 90 days during the 2020-21 school year. The pandemic led to the closure of campuses and a move to online learning in March 2020. The union also wants a $5,000 “one-time retention stipend” for all school nurses.

The full union contract is in effect through June 2022, but the settlement terms — following a January 2019 teachers strike — allowed the union to bring a few items to the table this year, including wages and bonuses.

The union represents more than 30,000 teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses.

In its Aug. 26 counter, the district had offered a 4% raise — two-thirds of what the union wants — and one-time bonuses totaling $2,000, about 44% of what the union is seeking.


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