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Editorial: Start reopening California schools. Now

A child holds up a drawing for his classmates to see on Zoom.
A 6-year-old child holds up a drawing for his first-grade classmates to see on Zoom.
(Los Angeles Times)

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says schools can reopen safely even if teachers aren’t vaccinated. So does California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Southern California pediatricians are calling on Los Angeles-area schools to switch, now, to in-person learning.

In other words, it is time to start reopening California schools.

As much as reasonably possible, teachers and other staff who are in daylong contact with students should be given more access to COVID-19 vaccines. Now that Blue Shield is in charge of dispensing doses, it should consider earmarking some of those for school districts. But at the moment, there isn’t enough vaccine for all the teachers, nor the many other essential workers in agricultural fields, supermarkets and the like who have worked their jobs in person since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s not to mention the people whose age, health or living conditions put them at special risk.

In the absence of a demonstrated threat, there is no scientifically sound reason to assert, as Los Angeles Unified Supt. Austin Beutner does, that vaccination of all teachers and staff must be a prerequisite to bringing students back to classrooms. Many teachers unions are demanding full vaccination before reopening, on top of other measures that health officials say are unnecessary.

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On an anecdotal level, reopened schools in California, including private schools that have opened campuses in high-infection areas, have shown that it is safe. Meanwhile, students in closed districts are suffering from an inferior education despite the best efforts of teachers, as well as from stress and loneliness. There is definite risk to keeping schools closed.

This isn’t to say all students have to go back right now. But in areas where COVID-19 rates are quieting down in California, even somewhat, some school doors should be swinging open. It should start with the most vulnerable students — those with special physical or learning needs, as L.A. Unified was doing safely before the most recent surge. Then the youngest students should be brought back. They are the least able to learn remotely and the least likely to pick up and transmit infection.

Some remote education will have to continue. Some classes might have to operate part-time, placing students in shifts to allow for physical distancing. Older students might remain at home for longer. There’s room for flexibility in assignments and schedules to let the most at-risk teachers continue to work remotely.

But Newsom’s reassurances about safety accomplish only so much against powerful unions. The state needs to back that up with requirements for schools to reopen when COVID-19 rates have fallen to reasonably safe levels, rather than trying to sweet-talk them into it.


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