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Opinion: Do L.A. parents really want gravely frightened teachers in the classroom?

Students work on after-school enrichment lessons at Rio Vista Elementary School in El Monte.
Students work on after-school enrichment lessons at Rio Vista Elementary School in El Monte on Feb. 2.
(Los Angeles Times)

Nothing I’ve written has been more affected by a personal conflict of interest than what you are about to read: My wife and I have three elementary-age children who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since March 11, 2020. That was the day we decided to stop sending our two second-graders to school, before their district suspended in-person classes, and when we canceled our youngest child’s enrollment at a local preschool.

Like many other children whose campuses have yet to reopen, my kids long ago tired of Zoom school. This isn’t to say they’d jump at the chance to break their new routine and run back into the classroom, but as a parent I’ve seen the worrying effects on children who have not been alive much longer than the 11-plus months of enforced isolation they’ve endured.

So it was with some hope earlier this week that parents across Los Angeles County were told that all elementary schools would be allowed to reopen, as new COVID-19 infections had stayed below 25 cases per 100,000 residents for long enough. In response, The Times Editorial Board strongly urged the Los Angeles Unified School District to resume classroom instruction as soon as possible, warning that the district’s teachers union puts its good reputation at risk by keeping schools closed until thousands of its members can be vaccinated first — a step that the editorial board notes public health experts consider unnecessary.

The response from teachers and their supporters has been overwhelming. Some say case counts are still too high in many parts of the district, others wonder why it’s asking too much to wait until more teachers and school staff are vaccinated, and a handful express deep resentment at being told they ought to accept greater risk.

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Different as these reservations may be, one truth becomes clear reading these letters: Teachers are gravely worried about being forced back into the classroom while transmission is still considered widespread. The reasons given reflect the public health messaging from the experts who are now assuring teachers that it may be OK to reopen schools: Social distancing isn’t practical in a classroom setting, enforcing mask rules will be problematic, and teachers risk bringing any infection from their students’ homes into their own.

Generally, school-age children belong in the classroom — this was beyond dispute before the pandemic, and in the last 11 months parents have become more reverent of this truth. But whether kids belong in a classroom under the care of educators who are frightened for their lives may be another matter. At the very least, reading these letters should make one thing clear about sending unvaccinated teachers back onto campus during a pandemic: It is a big ask.

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To the editor: While online learning has been difficult for families and children during these times, I am not certain that deciding all Los Angeles County students are able to return to school based on an average case rate for the entire county makes sense.

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Reaching a milestone of fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 for a county as large as Los Angeles is not reassuring when there are many communities that have been disproportionately devastated by COVID-19. The Latinx population is a demographic that has been hard hit both in terms of cases and deaths; the Los Angeles Unified School District has a student body that is nearly three-quarters Latinx.

Looking at the case rate for different neighborhoods and cities, we find vast differences. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, on Feb. 16 the San Gabriel Valley community of Sierra Madre had a case race of 18.2 per 100,000 residents, and South Pasadena’s was 15.4. Compare that to 51.9 in Boyle Heights and 62.7 in the city of Bell.

If a case rate of less than 25 is considered safe for elementary school children to return to school, then what about students in communities that have twice that number?

Clara Solis, Los Angeles

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To the editor: Behind all the numbers meant to calm and assure us — cases per 100,000, positivity rates and so forth — there is the unasked question, “What is an acceptable rate of death?”

Our country’s moral failure is not just revealed in the massive death toll from COVID-19, but also in the fact that we continue to ask this question, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

Some countries chose zero as their answer, kept the virus at bay and have returned to reasonable levels of economic activity and normalcy. Our government — and much of the Western world — opted to pit commercial activity against safety. The result has been a catastrophe of unnecessary death and sickness, as well as a withered economy.

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Now the government is pushing teachers to risk becoming sick with COVID-19 in order to get children back in school. Don’t lie and say it is “safe.” Our government’s entire approach to the pandemic has not been “safe.” It has been a calculation of death versus business profit.

Don’t lie about concern for the welfare of our children when we have gutted funding for education and infrastructure over the last several decades. Be truthful and say you have calculated an acceptable rate of death for teachers, and then tell me what that number is.

Glen Janken, Los Angeles

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To the editor: An unintended consequence of your emphasizing that many private schools have already reopened is that it gives the mistaken impression that the private schools are exemplars of sensible reopening before students, teachers and staff are fully vaccinated.

The truth is that private schools usually have no union or a very watered-down version. Teachers have little or no say in their employment requirements.

In contrast, public school teachers, through input to their unions, can collectively decide what is the safest approach for all concerned and can stipulate the requirements necessary for returning to work.

In the LAUSD’s case, teachers want the district not only to meet U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on ventilation, masking and social distancing, but also to vaccinate teachers, administrators and other staff.

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Kathy Craig, Marina del Rey

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To the editor: You should really apologize to Supt. Austin Buetner along with United Teachers Los Angeles for your editorial. Saying that Beutner lacks “big boy pants” for not forcing UTLA members back into the classroom during a pandemic is insulting to the superintendent.

You disregard UTLA’s goals of safety for students, staff and teachers. You indicate that the infection rate has fallen to the point that reopening is safe, but case numbers rise and fall day after day. Think there could be some natural variability here?

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You cite the fact that campus air filtration systems have been upgraded but do not say whether they are actually adequate. You point to “elaborate” testing and tracing protocols, but you don’t say whether they will be done at all schools equally. You say vaccinations for teachers are not necessary for reopening to be conducted safely, but you do not indicate how many teachers have preexisting conditions that could put them at greater risk of severe disease or death.

You correctly indicate the need for the marginalized and underserved students to be provided an education, but you do not acknowledge that these students tend to be concentrated in areas that have been hit hard by COVID-19. Schools in these areas often have the largest class sizes with no real ability to socially distance desks six feet apart.

Instead of your writing crass editorials, perhaps it would be better for The Times to send investigative reporters out to such schools to check on these issues.

Thomas L. Hedge, Porter Ranch

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To the editor: Do you really believe teachers need more stress in their lives?

During the last 11 months, they pivoted their classes from in-person to online on short notice, taught themselves how to teach remotely, and worked through the summer at no extra pay preparing for a fall start that would be in-person, hybrid or exclusively online (the plan seemed to change weekly). They made it halfway through this school year with the expectation that they could be called back to the classroom on any given Monday.

All the while, they have been tracking down and tending to the emotional needs of their students and, for many of them, supervising the remote learning of their own children.

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But that’s not enough. They are being pressured now to return to in-person teaching before they are vaccinated. Every student’s runny nose, sneeze or cough could remind teachers of the risk that they may expose their family members to COVID-19 when they come home at the end of the day.

Instead, get all teachers and staff vaccinated and then set the start date of in-person.

MaryAnne Anthony-Smith, Irvine

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To the editor: Everyone wants to see all schools reopen fully, but what does it take to get there? The answer is not just unlocking the doors, but also making sure the students, teachers and staff all show up.

The CDC says it is not necessary for all teachers to be vaccinated for schools to reopen safely. That may be a medical and public health science fact. But it seems it may be necessary for teachers and staff to be vaccinated in order for them to be willing to show up in sufficient numbers to have schools fully open.

If so, this makes vaccination a practical necessity.

No one wants to criticize teachers and school staff for having the same concerns about COVID-19 as everyone else. These people will stay at home until they are vaccinated or until they can be convinced that vaccination is not necessary.

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Let’s try to focus on solving the problems we actually have and pulling together on this one.

Jack Quirk, Northridge

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To the editor: The CDC has stated that it’s safe to resume in-person instruction without vaccinating all teachers and students if districts follow safety protocols. At this point in California, the only thing standing between most public school children returning to school and many working-class parents getting back to work are the teachers unions.

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And the reason our leaders are not fighting harder for children is because many of them were elected with the support of these unions.

The unions will tell you they have the students’ safety in mind, but their job is to advocate on behalf of their dues-paying members. Children don’t pay dues, but they are convenient pawns when it comes time for contract negotiations or getting a new tax on the ballot.

We know that many charter and private schools have already safely reopened following CDC protocols. In the case of San Francisco, where more than 16,000 private school students are attending in-person classes, fewer than five cases of COVID-19 have been traced to in-school transmission.

At the end of the day, this is more about teachers unions flexing their political muscle than it is about children’s safety, education and mental health.

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Alan Garner, Camarillo


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