On Tuesday, Los Angeles County health officials announced that the level of coronavirus infections had dipped below the state-mandated threshold required to allow the reopening of elementary schools. Although some school districts and private institutions immediately sought to resume on-campus instruction, California’s largest school district is not yet ready to fling open the doors for its 500,000 K-12 students. In a conversation late Wednesday afternoon, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner reiterated his longtime mantra “to reopen as soon as possible and in the safest way possible.” While he said that the district has enacted health protocols, such as installing high-quality air filtration systems in 80 million square feet of school buildings, and acknowledged that COVID-19 cases are decreasing, he pointed out that the district’s reopening plan involves getting teachers and other school staff vaccinated.
He added that, given the size of L.A. County, it can be “misleading” to rely on a single infection rate. He noted that a community like La Cañada may have two cases per 100,000 residents and a household median income of nearly $200,000, but “those are not the families we serve.”
Beutner said 80 percent of L.A. Unified families live in high-poverty areas where “the levels are probably 15 times higher than La Cañada, household incomes are probably a sixth or seventh of La Cañada, and they are the homes of essential workers. Many live in multi-generational settings.”
Beutner spoke to Los Angeles about vaccinations, priorities, and when kids might return to the classroom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There is a loud drumbeat to reopen schools immediately. Why can’t this happen?
A critical piece in the reopening puzzle is to vaccinate school staff. Vaccinating 25,000 [school employees] will allow us to reopen classrooms for every student in early education, pre-school, every one of our students in elementary school, a quarter-million students as a whole, and put their half-million family member on the path back to recovery.
Let’s put 25,000 doses of the vaccine in context: the state of California received about 1.3 million doses last week. Let’s assume that continues for the next two weeks: 25,000 doses over two weeks is less than 1 percent of the state’s supply of the vaccine.
As a state we’re failing our children if we’re not making the most in need the priority, and we’re not recognizing that the health crisis COVID presents intersects with the education crisis, and the answer to both is the same: Make the vaccine available in the communities hardest hit, including the educators who serve students in the hardest-hit communities.
Some argue that, even without vaccinations, schools can be made safe with masking, distancing, and other measures. So why not take those steps and reopen schools?
We have masks on every desk and station. We have hand sanitizer, configurations of classrooms able to keep people six feet apart. One-way halls and stairwells, all the things we need to do to mitigate risk. The CDC would give us an A+. We exceed their standards.
“We want the safest possible environment. Not the minimum standard to open, but the best possible standard to open”
It is another mitigation level, another level of protection, to vaccinate those who work in schools. So our view is, we want the safest possible environment. Not the minimum standard to open, but the best possible standard to open.
How much of a hurdle comes from local and state teachers’ unions that want to see all teachers vaccinated before students return to classrooms?
One of the misperceptions that can arise is whether all of the stakeholders are aligned and want the same thing. I talk to teachers every day. They want to be back in the classroom. As do our bus drivers and cafeteria workers. They want to be in our schools.
So let’s dispense with that misperception. Their desire to work in the safest possible environment is the same as mine, and what I think should be the same as all of ours. So if we can achieve that, working together, we should want to achieve it.
In your weekly address on February 8, you broached a plan to open schools in 60 days. Is that what we should expect?
Sixty days is a very real plan, and three things have to happen: the mitigation in schools; that part’s done. COVID coming down; that continues to happen. The third piece we articulated is let’s get going and get those vaccinated. It is happening in Long Beach and it should be happening in L.A. If all three pieces happen, we’ll meet the goal. The clock is ticking, which is why we need to get started in vaccinating school staff now. Not in ten days, 20 days, not in 50 days. Start now.
Is there no way to accelerate that timeframe?
My point is, we should look to open schools in the safest way possible and keep them open. Part of keeping them open are the health protocols, lower COVID, and vaccinations. Again, if the teacher goes to school next week, gets COVID, then students don’t have a teacher. So the health impact to that individual could be great. And are we serving the students well if all we’re doing is bringing folks back to an environment that’s less than safe? So the risk of reopening and the risk of impacting the school community remains.
You have discussed L.A. Unified potentially providing vaccinations. What role should the district play in the process?
There are two parts we can play for the community as a whole, and which will also have direct impact in schools.
Since [the] inception [of the coronavirus], we have been an important part of the safety net in communities. We have served 105 million meals. We have made sure half a million students have the computers they need and Internet access to continue learning. We have provided almost half a million free COVID tests. That’s all part of the safety net.
We want to extend that by helping provide access to the vaccine in the communities we serve which often don’t have access to healthcare.
Consider Boyle Heights: there are 25 schools, about 12,000 students, serving a community of a quarter-million people. There are 25 schools, three drugstores, two fire stations, and no stadiums.
If you think about the current delivery system of vaccines, a stadium looks good on TV, but think about how you get there—first you have to go on the nightly online lottery to get an appointment. Many of the families we serve may not have access. They may be elderly. They may not have transportation.
School-based vaccinations solve all those problems for the community. So we’re looking to be part of the community solution. We’re working with the county and we hope to turn many of our school locations into vaccination sites. We have more than 40 school sites where we provide free COVID testing. We have more than 60 sites where we provide meals. And some number like that where we can provide access in particular for communities that have not had access to the vaccine.
You have been critical of state and local leaders at many points, asserting that too much of a focus was on opening things like malls and cardrooms, with not enough attention on schools. Is that still your take?
An employee who works in a mall we can help with unemployment insurance and a check. We can help the business owner with rent mitigation and other matters. There are ways to help those who might be in a mall environment. I’m not suggesting the business owner or the employee has to sacrifice on behalf of the community. I’m suggesting there are other ways to provide direct support to them.
“Vaccinating those who work in schools has to be a priority”
If the risk of spread is too great to be in the mall, then let’s close the mall, take care of the people who work in the mall, and bring spread down so we can bring the child back to the classroom. It’s a question of priorities.
I recognize we do not have enough doses of the vaccine for everybody, but when you look at those relative risks, for me, vaccinating those who work in schools has to be a priority.
Crystal ball time. When do you expect L.A. Unified students will be back in classrooms? Will it be by the end of spring break in early April?
I mean it: 60 days. We can do this if we make students and those in schools a priority. We have done everything we can do to get schools ready. The spread is coming down, which is a good thing. Now we have to get those in schools vaccinated.
We’ll cross the point soon where if we don’t begin vaccinating those in schools, it’s going to get moved back. Look at a calendar and I think the timeframe you just said is reasonable, assuming we can start getting those who work in schools vaccinated.
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