LAUSD officials say lack of clear reopening guidance from state hampering negotiations
With the deadline for applying for the state’s Safe Schools for All reopening grant a week away, Los Angeles Unified School District leaders are pressing state and county health officials for a clearer definition as to what constitutes a safe learning environment, saying the lack of consistent guidance is why the district and local teachers union have yet to reach an agreement on returning students to campus.
One major hang-up has been over the proposal by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration that schools can reopen if the community’s daily coronavirus case rate is no greater than 25 out of 100,000 people. The state previously set a reopening threshold of 7 out of 100,000 people, though Newsom’s administration recently suggested a new rate of 28 out of 100,000 people before amending it to 25 out of 100,000.
“Nothing exemplifies the confusing nature of the guidance on reopening schools more than a proposed plan which sets the reopening threshold of 25 cases of the virus per 100,000 people — changed from 28 just a week ago and a significant increase from seven last month,” LAUSD Deputy Superintendent Megan Reilly wrote in a Sunday memo to school board members, obtained by the Los Angeles Daily News.
The memo noted that state health authorities cited the 25-case figure based on a study from July, though the authors of that report no longer view their findings as operative due to a better understanding of the coronavirus and how to stop infections.
Superintendent Austin Beutner, in an interview Monday, Jan. 25, said whatever case rate the state decides to go with, health officials need to be able to articulate their rationale.
“I’m not suggesting the 25 is right, wrong or otherwise,” Beutner said. But, he added, whatever standards the state sets, “it’s my responsibility to communicate that to our labor partners, to the families we serve.” That means he needs to understand the reasonings himself, he said.
Earlier in the day, the superintendent had issued a statement about ongoing negotiations with the teachers union to bring students back onto campus.
“We continue to work with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) to plan for the return of students to schools as soon as possible and in the safest way possible,” Beutner stated while urging the governor and state Legislature to define a safe school environment using “clear and consistent standards which can be understood by all.”
“Once the state guidelines and budget actions for the reopening of schools have been finalized, we expect to be in a position to complete the discussions with UTLA,” he said.
The parties plan to meet this week with university researchers who have been advising the district on coronavirus-related issues to review draft health guidelines in the state’s Safe Schools for All proposal, Beutner said.
The district and union missed Sunday’s self-imposed deadline for reaching agreements on providing in-person services to high-needs students and on a hybrid instructional model.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he wants districts applying for the state grants to have agreements with their labor employee groups on school reopening. With the exception of the teachers union, LAUSD has agreements at this point with all its other labor groups.
The district’s school board had planned to vote on submitting a grant application to the state on Tuesday, but the item was pulled from the agenda.
To be sure, no one expects LAUSD to call students back to campus en masse in the next few weeks, given how high the county’s COVID-19 infection rate remains. But the state has a Feb. 1 deadline for districts to submit their reopening plans — even if they can’t reopen immediately — to be considered for the maximum funding under the grant program. The district could submit an application later but may receive less funding.
School board member Nick Melvoin said inconsistent public health guidance means the district and teachers union have been unable to finalize an agreement on the timeline and safety conditions for schools to reopen. Nevertheless, he stressed the need to have an instructional plan in place once in-person learning can resume.
“Though we cannot safely return yet, our teachers and families deserve to know what to expect when hybrid learning begins,” he said. “The inability to answer these questions is causing undue stress for families and an inability to make timely preparations for teachers.”
On the vaccination front, Beutner said in his weekly remarks to the community Monday that another critical piece to reopening classrooms is immunizing teachers and other school staff against the coronavirus.
“There’s a unique and important benefit to vaccinating all who work in schools – doing so will help reopen schools sooner,” he said.
Currently in L.A. County, only frontline health care workers and residents 65 and older can register to be vaccinated. Teachers are part of the next priority group to receive the vaccines, which is not projected to happen before February.
The city of Long Beach, which operates its own health department, began vaccinating teachers this week
UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said last week that while the district can legally require most employees to be inoculated, the union has demanded to bargain over the vaccination plan. She further said that having staff immunized shouldn’t automatically mean that schools are ready to reopen. The criteria should be a much lower COVID transmission rate, she said.
“We don’t believe that all employees being vaccinated is a sufficient trigger on its own for the full reopening of schools because neither vaccine currently on the market is proven to provide sterilizing immunity. … Children — who currently do not have a vaccine available for them — and especially the family members they go home to, could continue to be at risk,” she said.