Editorial: L.A. Unified is officially out of excuses for keeping elementary schools closed

Jose Huerta and Austin Beutner talking
Jose Huerta, left, Los Angeles Unified Local District East superintendent, talks with L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner, right, after he helped distribute meals and treats to families at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles on Feb. 1.
(Los Angeles Times)

Schools have been reopening across the country for months now, illustrating that students can return to classrooms with little risk if the proper precautions have been taken. This is especially true of elementary schools, as younger children have been far less likely to be sickened with COVID-19 or to infect others. Reopened schools have not caused infections to surge in outlying communities.

Yet Los Angeles Unified schools — along with many other public schools statewide — have remained closed. Supt. Austin Beutner, who has been struggling with a teachers union unwilling to send educators back into classrooms, couldn’t have opened the schools anyway because the county’s infection rate was too high to meet the state’s stringent standards. But this week, that rate fell to the point where it is officially safe for all elementary schools in the county to open.

And yet Beutner, who is still embroiled in talks with the United Teachers Los Angeles, has no immediate plans to reopen.

There are no more excuses. Further delay is unacceptable.

To his credit, Beutner prepared the schools well. Air filtration systems have been upgraded. An elaborate testing and tracing regimen will check both staff and students frequently, with results received early enough for the district to react before the start of the next school day.


Most recently, though, Beutner has been lobbying for teachers to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom, in line with UTLA demands. Public health experts say this is unnecessary.

It’s not easy to go against UTLA, as Beutner learned during a bruising strike two years ago. But at this point, the superintendent needs to put on his big-boy pants, reopen schools and demand that teachers return or risk their jobs. Union leaders in turn need to realize that not only are students done a tremendous disservice by the continued closures, but most parents vehemently want their kids back in the classroom. The union is jeopardizing its own popularity if it continues to put the needs of students and families last.

Meanwhile, the district has been allocated vaccine to begin immunizing school staff who are 65 and older. But younger staff are not at particular risk; it is generally safe for them to return to schools until vaccines become more widely available. Even if everyone could get their first shots today, it would take five to six weeks before they would be considered fully protected. That’s far too long. Private schools have been reopening safely, according to new state maps, in areas where public schools have remained closed. Including Los Angeles County.

On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidelines that say schools could safely reopen at generally higher infection levels than California has allowed, provided proper ventilation and testing. Gov. Gavin Newsom should fall in line with the CDC so that more schools can welcome students back on campus.

Many teachers have been working above and beyond the call of duty to make remote learning successful, but most students, especially the marginalized and underserved, are losing out — not just academically, but socially, emotionally and physically — without their schools. We are closing in on a full year since schools closed. Let’s not reach that dismal milestone.