Coronavirus Today: Weighing a return to school

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Monday, March 29. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

With the vaccine rollout’s supply of doses expected to get a much needed shot in the arm and daily new case rates continuing to dip, many Southland students have been daring to dream about a return to classrooms — with safety measures in place, of course — and the chance to interact in-person with teachers and socialize with friends.

That’s certainly true for a lot of parents. Many have found themselves stretched gossamer-thin as they juggle work, distance learning and child care.

Take Vicky Martinez, a mother of four — a second-grader, fifth-grader, eighth-grader and tenth-grader in three Los Angeles Unified schools — who’s been waiting for the day she can send her kids back for in-person instruction on campus.


“I am exhausted — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially — all of the above,” she said. “It has been a lot of work, and I feel like I’m failing every day as a parent.”

Regardless, Martinez said that for now, she’s holding off.

“Cases in Los Angeles have decreased dramatically, but it is not nearly enough to make me feel at ease,” said Martinez, who is immunocompromised.

“I fear my kids getting COVID and it leading to MIS-C,” she added, referring to multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a potentially life-threatening medical condition that has affected a tiny fraction of children infected by the coronavirus.

Even though many exasperated LAUSD parents are pushing for a return to classrooms, the clear majority of parents are — so far, at least — not sending their children back, my colleague Howard Blume reports.

Based on a preference survey the district has asked parents to submit, about 37% of elementary school students would return, along with 24% for middle school and 16% for high school as of Friday. (Those who don’t respond are projected to remain in distance learning; as more families submit their choices, the percentage of students expected to return to classrooms may rise.)

Their misgivings are shared by parents statewide. The California Teachers Assn. released survey results Thursday indicating that 47% of parents were at least fairly confident that schools were safe for in-person learning; 23% somewhat confident; and 28% not confident. Greater doubts were expressed among Latino, Black and Asian American parents than among white parents. In L.A. County, parents felt even less assured: 39% confident; 25% somewhat confident; 36% not confident.

“I know there are some concerns about trust,” said Kelly Gonez, the president of the LAUSD school board, “particularly for Black and Latino communities that haven’t been protected by our governmental institutions ... historically and during the pandemic.”

Parents’ concerns appear to fall into three main buckets: ongoing safety fears when it comes to coronavirus transmission; dissatisfaction with what in-person instruction the district is offering, especially for middle and high schools; and logistical issues, including worries that now-established routines will be disrupted so close to the school year’s end.

Teresa Gaines, who has two kids at Grand View Boulevard Elementary in Mar Vista, directed her skepticism elsewhere. “It’s not that I don’t trust the district,” she said. “It’s that I don’t trust 12-plus other families in a cohort to use safe protocols off campus. ... I’m not ready to mix my kids with 60 to 70 people outside of my family.”

For her part, Martinez remains torn about what to do about her four children. Her high school son has changed his mind and wants to return to school. “It sounds more like a way to see some friends — I can understand that,” Martinez said. “But he knows that I have final say, and he could be pulled from the hybrid model at any time.”

As L.A. parents weigh when to send their kids back to school, The Times has begun two new efforts to help.

With a new newsletter focused on kids, education and parenting, we aim to help families navigate back-to-school life as we recover from an unprecedented year and move forward. The newsletter, called 8 to 3 and sent every Monday evening, is written by my colleague Sonja Sharp, a veteran reporter who during the pandemic has been covering the crisis in early childhood education and day care.

Please email us to share your family’s experience with education during the pandemic — the frustrations, the struggles, the resilience you’ve discovered together. And sign up for the new newsletter here.

Meanwhile, my colleagues on The Times’ data and graphics team are tracking California’s uneven progress in reopening schools. You can see at a glance where schools are reopening and for whom, and look up how your county compares.

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:14 p.m. Monday:

3,640,704 new cases, up 3,781 today; 58,552 deaths, up 118 today; and 17,356,911 vaccinations, up 220,070 today.
(3,640,704 new cases, up 3,781 today; 58,552 deaths, up 118 ; and 17,356,911 vaccinations, up 220,070.)

Track California’s coronavirus spread and vaccination efforts — including the latest numbers and how they break down — with our graphics.

14-day: Cases -24%, deaths -12%. Vaccines: 29.9% have had a dose, 14.7% fully vaccinated. School: 29% of students can return.

Across California

In a matter of days, California will be dramatically expanding who is eligible to roll up their sleeves for a COVID-19 vaccine: It’s opening up the line for residents age 50 and older starting Thursday, and for all residents age 16 and older starting April 15.

That’s exciting news, albeit with a caveat: There may not be enough doses immediately available for everyone, thanks to a shortage that has dogged the state’s vaccine rollout.

But that’s about to change. Federal officials are expecting a major boost this week. Roughly 11 million Johnson & Johnson doses are expected to be delivered nationwide, a huge number compared with what’s been shipped to date, according to Jeff Zients, coordinator of President Biden’s COVID-19 task force.

While it’s not clear exactly how many of those doses will come to California, any significant uptick could turbocharge our rollout.

L.A. County is already starting to see its vaccine supplies grow, according to Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the county Department of Public Health. Still, it’s going to take time to work through the vaccination backlog for those who are already eligible in addition to accommodating those who will soon join the queue. “I urge people to just be patient,” he said.

While it’s been an overwhelming year for students at any level, California State University students have persevered. Data provided to The Times by 18 of the system’s 23 campuses show that, on average, students’ unit loads and grades did not drop substantially during the first full semester of online learning in fall 2020, compared with fall 2019. In fact, average student GPA rose across the board — a reflection of flexible grading and expanded withdrawal policies put into place during the pandemic.

Nonetheless, 10 campuses reported year-over-year increases in withdrawals from classes, and 11 saw upticks in the percentage of students who received a grade of D, F or W, for withdrawal, my colleague Nina Agrawal reports. The share of freshmen who continued from fall to spring term — an important element to their long-term success — dropped at 13 universities. And by some indications, Black, Latino and first-generation students fared the worst.

Many of these students are handling responsibilities that go far beyond their school work. Take Diana Alcantar, a junior at Cal Poly Pomona and the first in her family to attend college. Alcantar, who is majoring in liberal studies and lives with her mother and sister in Bellflower, became the household’s primary income earner during the pandemic, working 40 hours a week at T.J. Maxx and Kumon tutoring to make up lost earnings from her mother’s nail salon job.

She developed a grueling pandemic routine during her fall 2020 semester: work, school, study, sleep. As bills came due each month, she would grow anxious. “It was so hard for me to focus and do my work … mainly because I was stressed or I was tired,” she said.

Finally, for Southlanders observing Passover or Easter, a warning from public health officials: Even though vaccinations are rising — and even if you’ve been inoculated — it’s best to continue to observe COVID-19 safety precautions.

“While conditions have definitely changed, particularly as we’ve vaccinated millions of individuals over the past three months, we do not yet have enough vaccine protection across the county to prevent more transmission if we’re not extraordinarily careful in these next few weeks,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the county Board of Supervisors recently.

With that in mind, my colleagues have put together a helpful list of safety precautions and holiday event tips. Among them: Wear masks in public, and maintain a physical distance from those outside your household. That’s because while a COVID-19 vaccine can protect people from getting sick with the disease, it’s not yet definitively known whether getting a vaccine will prevent people from spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 to others.

If you’re attending a gathering, bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils. Wear a mask, whether you’re indoors or outside. Avoid shouting or singing. If you’re hosting, be sure to cancel the gathering if you’re sick or have been near someone who thinks they had COVID-19 or were exposed to it. Provide single-use and disposable options. Limit the number of guests, have extra unused masks available for guests and encourage everyone to wear them. Get the full list of tips here.

Tiers map

A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk

See the latest on California’s coronavirus closures and reopenings, and the metrics that inform them, with our tracker. As schools reopen around California, we’re also tracking who can go back, and where.

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Around the nation and the world

In Washington, President Biden urged Americans to stay vigilant against COVID-19 even as signs of a potential new surge in coronavirus cases have spawned fears of a deadly fourth wave of infections and deaths, my colleague Chris Megerian reports. “The war against COVID-19 is far from won,” Biden warned at the White House complex. “This is deadly serious.”

He also announced plans that will be welcome news to anybody trying to get a vaccine: By April 19, his administration will more than double the number of pharmacies where people can get their shots. By that point, 90% of American adults will have become eligible for the vaccine, and the final 10% will become eligible after May 1, he said.

The faster timetable and expanded network of inoculation sites are part an effort to outrun the virus as states loosen restrictions on public gatherings and people look to return to normal life. New infections, hospitalizations and deaths are all on the rise nationwide, fueled by looser behaviors and the virus’ contagious variants.

“We’re in a life-and-death race with a virus that is spreading quickly,” Biden added, and “we’re giving up hard-fought, hard-won gains.”

He spoke soon after a White House briefing where Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters that she felt a sense of “impending doom.”

She described treating dying patients and seeing the extra mobile morgue parked outside the hospital where she had previously worked in Massachusetts, her voice cracking as she did. “We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope,” she said. “But right now, I’m scared.”

In Mexico, as tourists head to the country’s beaches for Holy Week, prompting fears of a new wave of coronavirus infections, the government has publicly confirmed what many have long suspected: that the number of people lost to the pandemic surpassed 300,000, well beyond official totals, our Mexico City bureau chief Patrick McDonnell reports.

The new data looked at “excess deaths” — that is, the additional number of people who die from any cause in a given period compared with recent norms. The findings suggest that nearly 322,000 Mexicans have probably succumbed to COVID-19, a figure 60% higher than the officially reported death toll, which counts only the victims who tested positive for the virus. Mexico has one of the world’s lowest testing rates for COVID-19, a fact that has sowed suspicion that authorities were deliberately underreporting the number of deaths.

The study did not address what other factors besides the coronavirus may have inflated the number of deaths. But health professionals have speculated that, in Mexico and elsewhere, the pandemic probably discouraged many people from pursuing treatment for non-COVID-19 health conditions — a hesitance that may have led to an increase in fatalities from diseases not linked to the virus.

On to Beijing: A joint World Health Organization-China study on the origins of the coronavirus says it was most likely transmitted from bats to humans through another animal. Another hypothesized scenario involving a lab leak was “extremely unlikely,” according to a draft copy of the study.

The findings, which brought few surprises, provided in-depth detail on the reasoning behind the researchers’ conclusions. The team suggested further research into every area except the lab-leak hypothesis.

The report’s release had been repeatedly delayed, raising questions about whether Beijing was trying to skew the conclusions in order to prevent blame for the pandemic falling on China. “We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a recent CNN interview.

China rejected that criticism Monday. “The U.S. has been speaking out on the report. By doing this, isn’t the U.S. trying to exert political pressure on the members of the WHO expert group?” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.

Our questions answered

Earlier this month, my colleague Deborah Netburn asked readers to weigh in for a story on vaccine envy that she was writing.

“I’m curious to know how people who have not been vaccinated are managing any jealousy that may come up when they hear friends and family members gleefully announce that they have an appointment or are in the clear,” she wrote. “How do you respond to someone else’s good news? What do you do to cope?”

Well, readers, you delivered.

Take Peter Jacobsen, 64, who on a very rare and speedy trip to Trader Joe’s met an older friend who had recently received her second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This was her first visit to Trader Joe’s in a year, she said.

Jacobsen was happy for his friend but felt himself grow exceedingly anxious, wondering when he would experience a similar sense of relief. “I was still in that pandemic mode, and she’s relaxed,” he said. “Vaccine envy is real.”

Then there’s Kat Sambor, 36, an event planner in Echo Park, who acknowledged how emotionally confusing it was to see friends and acquaintances getting vaccinated ahead of her.

“I’m super happy for every person who said they got it — I want everyone to get it, I want my loved ones to be safe,” she said. “I know every person who gets vaccinated gets us closer to the end of the pandemic, but at the same time there’s that duality with jealousy.”

Most experts agree that envy serves an evolutionary purpose — comparing ourselves to others and striving to obtain the things they have can help us expand and grow. Still, most of us feel ashamed of any envy we experience.

“I think of it as a two-headed monster,” said Christine Harris, a psychology professor at the University of San Diego who studies negative emotions. “There’s one head that wants to devour what the other person has, and the other head wants to chew on yourself for having such loathsome feelings.”

But Harris has some advice for anybody feeling ashamed of feeling vaccine envy: Give yourself a break. “Experiencing envy does not make you a bad person,” she said. “It’s natural, and we are wired to have these emotions.”

Luckily for all of us, vaccine envy should be a temporary state, what with eligibility expanding and vaccine supply growing. In the meantime, read Deborah’s full story here, and know this — you’re not alone.

We want to hear from you. Email us your coronavirus questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Wondering if your question’s already been answered? Check out our archive here.


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