UPDATED: LAUSD Says Students Need COVID-19 Vaccine to Return to Campus
The LA Times reports that more California elementary school students could begin returning to classrooms by the spring if Governor Newsom and lawmakers can reach an agreement about when teachers and staff can receive their COVID-19 vaccinations. LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said today that if he recevied 25,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, he could reopen elementary schools for a quarter-million children as soon as overall health conditions in the county improve. That target of 25,000 would include principals, teachers, bus drivers, custodians and librarians.
However, county health officials have acknowledged a vaccine shortage and said they won't be able to supply this amount for a few weeks. Newsom said he hopes a deal between his office and the Legislature will come together within days, prioritizing teacher vaccinations. It's been reported that lawmakers want to reach a deal with the governor that gives teachers and staff the opportunity to receive the vaccine in phases before they return to the classroom, with the youngest students and students with disabilities possibly returning first.
LA County officials are not yet permitting the vaccination of teachers unless they are 65 and over.
On January 11, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said that once COVID-19 vaccines are available to children, students in LAUSD will need to receive it before they can return to campus. Beutner compared the requirement for the COVID vaccine to students being vaccinated for measles and mumps, and to being tested for tuberculosis. “That’s the best way we know to keep all on a campus safe,” he explained.
But when will children be able to receive the vaccine?
Vaccines should be available to teachers and other essential school workers as soon as early February, as long as there are sufficient doses. However, while both Pfizer and Moderna have announced plans to test children as young as 12, the two approved vaccines have not yet been proven safe, and there are as yet no plans to test the vaccine in children under 12. Beutner said he hopes all students will be vaccinated by this time next year, which is both ambitious and alarmingly far off.
What are the reopening standards?
Confusingly, while Beutner said the vaccine will be required for any students returning to campus, he did not suggest that schools should remain closed until the vaccines are available; in the meantime, he said, California should set standards for reopening schools (along with the reasoning behind the standards) and require schools to open when those standards are met.
Meanwhile, Governor Newsom announced a plan to bring students in grades TK–2 and students with disabilities back to school as early as mid-February, with the remainder of elementary students returning as early as March, though distance learning will remain an option for those who choose it and for those “whose health status does not allow them to return to school in the near term.” The catch, of course, is that only schools in counties with a seven-day average of fewer than 28 cases per 100,000 residents will be eligible to open.
There have been many complaints that Newsom’s plan isn’t detailed enough; superintendents from seven of the state’s largest school districts called on him to set a clear, mandated state standard for reopening schools. “Our schools stand ready to resume in-person instruction as soon as health conditions are safe and appropriate. But we cannot do it alone,” the superintendents wrote in the letter. “Despite heroic efforts by students, teachers and families, it will take a coordinated effort by all in state and local government to reopen classrooms.”
Problems facing LA County
Last week, LAUSD released data showing that nearly 1 in 3 asymptomatic students from some lower-income communities who were tested at a district-operated site during the week of December 14 turned out to be infected with the virus. Rates of positive tests have also spiked in higher-income areas. Although the vaccine would protect teachers and staff, asymptomatic students could easily pass the virus around, and even if they’ve been vaccinated, exposed teachers and staff could still potentially infect unvaccinated household members.
“Extraordinarily high case counts of COVID are the barrier to opening schools in the Los Angeles area, and we encourage the governor, the Legislature, state, and local authorities to make that job one,” Beutner said. “Because until the case counts are within any reasonable standard … it’s not possible for schools in Los Angeles to be open, and that’s troubling for all of us.”
In addition, even if a school is operating safely, it will need to shut down if it has three cases over a 14-day period.
What about families who don’t want their child to be vaccinated?
If parents don’t want their children to take the vaccine, Beutner said, they will have the option “to stay in online learning and therefore not have to go back to campus.” This statement leaves us with more questions, however, as teacher unions will need to have a say in whether online learning will continue indefinitely once in-person instruction resumes.
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