California remains divided on reopening schools

While the state suggests schools can reopen without vaccines, school districts and teachers worry that there are other unaddressed issues to consider when reopening.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed on Feb. 3 that the majority of public schools in California can reopen without mandating a COVID-19 vaccine for faculty or students.

Nearly 90% of California schools, both private and public, began online for the fall semester due to a state mandate issued in July. As the post-holiday COVID-19 surge in California begins to slow, restrictions across the state have been lifted. Whether schools should begin to reopen and whether teachers should be given vaccine priority is a point of debate.

Gov. Newsom also proposed $2 billion in funding for COVID-19 safety precautions for school districts that reopened.

Despite Gov. Newsom’s proposal, schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District currently remain closed.

On Feb. 2, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District Austin Beutner laid out four objectives that had to be met in order to reopen schools as safely as possible — one objective being that health authorities would have to supply the school staff with vaccinations.

This has become closer to a reality. In an LAUSD update on Feb. 8, Beutner said that if 25,000 teachers and staff are able to be vaccinated, elementary schools could open once state legislation allows.

“The good news is that Los Angeles Unified has already put in place the necessary measures to reopen schools in the safest way possible once the appropriate state COVID standards for reopening schools are met,” Beutner said.

Some in-school measures included upgrading the air-filtration systems in multiple buildings, supplying personal protective equipment and masks at every school, and training staff on health protocols and practices.

Beutner emphasized the importance of listening to health authorities who “have the expertise to determine the appropriate standards” for returning to in-person instruction, but he also said the LAUSD community “deserves a full explanation of the science and reasoning behind them.”

The decision to keep LAUSD schools closed faced backlash — L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino announced a litigation gambit to sue the LAUSD. San Francisco filed similar litigation against their school district as well.

Beutner responded to the lawsuit threat in a press release on Feb. 5.

“San Francisco authorities worked together and brought the rate of infection under control and the area has for some time met the state standard for school reopening, but Los Angeles is a national example of how governmental dysfunction has allowed the virus to rampage out of control,” Beutner wrote.

Others feel the state is prioritizing businesses over public health. United Teachers Los Angeles urged in an update on Feb. 5 that vaccinations be a prerequisite to reopening schools.

“By repeatedly prioritizing the wishes of the Chamber of Commerce and the California Restaurant Association over the health of our communities, Newsom and County supervisors have failed to create the safe conditions for our schools to reopen,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement Jan. 28. UTLA did not immediately respond to Annenberg Media’s request for further comment.

Teachers are not just worried about their personal health and safety — they have concerns for their students and their families as well.

“We want to make sure that students are learning and it’s better for them to learn in the classroom, but it’s still not safe,” said Adriana Chavira, a teacher at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School. “And we don’t want them to catch something, go home and impact other people and especially like their... older relatives who are at high risk.”

Online learning has proven challenging since Los Angeles schools went online in March 2020. Between the toll of online learning on student’s mental health and academic progress, inequities in access to online resources and technology and the loss of extracurriculars, there are still issues to address within the learning model.

“I think it’s going to be really essential to understand how big the negative consequences of Covid on kids have been and how those consequences are felt across different groups,” USC Associate Professor of Education Morgan Polikoff said. “And then I think we’re going to need various kinds of targeted policies.”

Chavira said that hybrid classes come with their own challenges and stressors.

“Sometimes schools have reopened and then they have an outbreak two weeks later,” she said. “They have to go back to remote learning because there’s been cases on campus. So they have to close and wait for the rates to go down again.”

As the pandemic continues, some parents are hesitant to have their children return to in-person learning.

“I think that the interesting thing about parent concerns is that they’re really different, depending on which parents you talk to,” Polikoff said. “There’s quite compelling evidence that Black and Latin parents and low-income parents are much more likely to be concerned about sending their kids back to school than whiter and more affluent parents.”

The pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color. The Los Angeles Times reported that deaths of Latino residents in Los Angeles County are up 1000% since November as a result of the pandemic.

“Students of color are at higher risk of getting infected,” Chavira said. “They often live in multigenerational families...a lot of our students live in those situations or their parents are working. They’re essential they are at a higher risk of catching it and even coming into school and spreading it without knowing that they are infected.”

But LAUSD students in low-income areas have also faced inequities in access to essential online learning technology, from personal computers and tablets to stable internet connection, since the beginning of the pandemic. While there have been efforts made by the city and companies to provide these resources, the issue is still prevalent as online classes ramp up.

“Paradoxically, the groups that are being the most negatively affected are also the groups that are most resistant to returning in person,” Polikoff said. “It’s a tension that’s not easily resolved, because I think even if you reopen, what you’re likely to see is the students who go back in-person and thus disproportionately benefit are the ones who are going to be the whiter and more affluent kids who have been harmed less by the pandemic.”

If schools do reopen for in-person or hybrid learning, Polikoff “would strongly support a policy of moving teachers higher up on the list in exchange for moving as aggressively as possible towards reopening schools with other kinds of precautions, like mandatory mask policies for students and teachers.”

“Obviously we want to be in the classroom because distance learning has been difficult for and challenging for various reasons,” Chavira said. “But here in Los Angeles County, the rates are just astounding. They’re still very high. They’re still not safe. I don’t know any teacher here in L.A. that is comfortable going back into the classroom the way things stand right now.”