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State Deal Encourages School Reopening by April; but Local Resistance Looms

Students at Manchester Ave. Elementary School have virtual meet and greet with teacher
Gladys Alvarez, a 5th grade teacher at Manchester Ave. Elementary School in South Los Angeles, waves goodbye to her students at conclusion of a meet and greet on Wednesday afternoon on August 19, 2020. | Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders announced a multibillion-dollar deal today aimed at enticing schools to resume in-person instruction for young students by April 1, but union demands for COVID vaccinations of teachers and reduced transmission rates make it unlikely L.A. Unified will meet that date.

The deal — which still needs formal legislative approval — would create a $2 billion incentive pool, with money doled out to schools that reopen campuses for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, as well as high-need students of all ages. The money will go toward safety improvements, such as ventilation systems and protective equipment.

The proposal does not order schools to reopen, but schools that fail to do so by April 1 will lose a percentage of their funds for every day they miss the deadline.

The money would be available to schools in counties that have an average daily new COVID case rate of less than 25 per 100,000 residents, which covers the vast majority of the state. Los Angeles County and other Southern California counties meet that goal, although all remain in the most restrictive "purple tier" of the state's COVID reopening roadmap.

Under existing state guidelines, schools in counties that meet the 25 cases per 100,000 residents threshold are authorized — but not required — to resume in-person classes for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.

Under the proposed legislative incentive package being announced Monday, schools in counties that advance out of the state's "purple" tier and into the less-restrictive "red" tier — with a new COVID case rate of seven per 100,000 residents and positivity rate less than 8% — would required to open all elementary grades and at least one middle or high school grade to qualify
for the incentive funds.

The legislative package also includes another $4.6 billion in general funding for all schools to help districts make up for learning time lost during the pandemic, possibly by extending the school year into the summer.

While the goal of the legislation is to get young students back to campus by April 1, the Los Angeles Unified School District is unlikely to meet that date. District Superintendent Austin Beutner has set a target date of April 9 for reopening elementary schools, but the powerful teachers' union — United Teachers Los Angeles — has not agreed to that date, which it says is subject to labor talks.

The union is demanding that all teachers and school staff be vaccinated before they return to in-person instruction. It also does not want campuses to reopen until Los Angeles County moves out of the "purple" tier. Union officials argue that while the countywide transmission rate has dropped below the 25 per 100,000 residents threshold, many neighborhoods the LAUSD serves are lower-income, and have rates that are three times as high.

UTLA's membership is voting this week on a proposed statement of opposition to reopening campuses, saying in-person instruction cannot resume until the county is in the "red" tier; all school staff returning to in-person work "are either fully vaccinated or provided access to full
vaccination"; and safety measures are in place at schools such as protective equipment, social distancing, ventilation and "a cleaning regimen."

Beutner has supported the union's call for vaccinations before a return to classes. Teachers and other school staff in Los Angeles County became eligible for COVID vaccines on Monday, with the LAUSD even operating a vaccination site dedicated to education workers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.

Even with LAUSD expected to receive about 40% of vaccine doses in the county set aside for education workers, it was unlikely that all elementary school teachers would be vaccinated in time to meet Beutner's proposed April 9 date for school reopening, much less the state's new April 1 date.

But Beutner said Monday the governor has committed to providing 25,000
doses of vaccine to the LAUSD over the next two weeks.

"This plan will allow us to complete during the next two weeks the vaccinations for school staff who are already working at school sites, staff who are working with our youngest learners and those working with students with learning differences and disabilities," Beutner said.

But even if the district does receive enough doses, it still wouldn't meet the union demand that schools remain closed until the county emerges from the "purple" tier. Los Angeles County's COVID case rates have been dropping dramatically following a winter surge, but it was unclear when it might be able to advance to the "red" tier.

As of Monday, the county's adjusted rate of daily new cases was 12.3 per 100,000 residents, still above the seven-per-100,000 level needed to move to the "red" tier. The case rate is updated weekly, with the next update scheduled for Tuesday. Newsom said Tuesday's update will likely move seven counties across the state from the "purple" tier to the "red" tier, but he did not specify which counties would be advancing.

Newsom reiterated Monday that vaccinations should not be considered a prerequisite for schools to reopen. But he has ordered that a minimum of 10% of all vaccinations received by the state, a minimum of 75,000 doses per week, be set aside for teachers and school staff. He also said the two vaccination sites in the state operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — including one at Cal State Los Angeles — will be reserved this Thursday and Friday for school staff and teachers only.

Doses administered at the FEMA sites are in addition to the state's allocation of doses.

Although the LAUSD teachers union is balking at an immediate return to classes, other Southland school districts are moving ahead with reopening efforts under the current state guidelines allowing in-person instruction for students up to sixth grade.

As of Monday, 26 school districts in Los Angeles County have had "COVID Safety Plans" approved by the county Department of Public Health. The plans outline all safety measures taken by the districts to prepare for the resumption of in-person classes.

Just because a district's safety plan is approved doesn't mean the district will automatically reopen. LAUSD is among the districts with an approved safety plan.

Debra Duardo, superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which oversees 80 school districts, including LAUSD, cautiously called the state's school-opening plan "great news for public schools."

"This is a great start, but our districts need flexibility in both expenditures and timelines," she said. "Schools require ongoing funding for additional staff such as psychological services and mental health, extended learning opportunities and tutoring, curriculum adoption and technology, as well as other critical resources.

"I am hopeful today that we are turning the corner on this crisis with the start of an equitable vaccine distribution plan for educators and additional support and guidance from the state. I will continue to advocate that resources be directed with educational equity at the forefront of decision-making," she said.

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