LAUSD superintendent believes April 9 reopening still feasible for elementary schools

Los Angeles Unified schools Superintendent Austin Beutner on Monday, Feb. 22, doubled down on his challenge to elected officials to get elementary campuses in the nation’s second-largest school district up and running by April 9, insisting it can be done if vaccines are prioritized for school employees.

And in anticipation that a more general school reopening can occur by then, the district will resume providing child care, one-one-one and small group instruction, special education services and athletic conditioning next week, Beutner announced during his weekly update to the community. These services were suspended late last year due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

According to Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents nearly 30,000 teacher assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers and other workers in LAUSD, services for vulnerable students — which include students with disabilities, English learners, homeless students and foster youth — the goal is to welcome these students back on March 4, with additional sites opening March 8. The schedule is dependent on school workers being offered the opportunity to be vaccinated first.

SEIU also announced on Monday an agreement with the district that includes vaccine prioritization and a $5 per hour bump in wages in the form of “hero pay” for workers who must return to school sites.

The district is still negotiating a general return to campus with United Teachers Los Angeles. Before services were suspended in December, the district had offered limited in-person instruction and other services to high-needs students through an agreement with the union, in which teachers could voluntarily choose to work on campus.

But for a more general return to campus occur, both Beutner and UTLA leaders have insisted that school employees must be vaccinated.

On Monday, Beutner again pressed upon state officials the need to ensure vaccine availability for school staff, as pressure continues to mount by parents, business leaders and some medical experts calling on the district to provide in-person instruction.

“We need a specific plan with a specific  commitment of doses to Los Angeles Unified so we can protect our school staff and all  in the school community,” Beutner said. “That’s what Chicago did and that’s what Long Beach did. We need to do that here.”

“My goal of April 9th is still possible, but we need to start today, not tomorrow, not next  week,” he continued. “We stand ready to work with state and local health authorities. Get us the doses  and we’ll get it done.”

State lawmakers introduced a bill last week calling for more funding than Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed to support school reopenings, and for counties to offer vaccines to personnel who work on campuses where students are attending classes in person, though it stopped short of mandating employees to have been vaccinated before the reopenings.

Newsom then announced that the state would set aside 10% of its vaccine supply for educators and child care workers starting next month.

Beutner said he was “encouraged” by such recent actions but stressed that elected officials “must act with urgency.” The superintendent first asked officials to join him in a 60-day challenge to get preschools and elementary schools in L.A. Unified reopened two weeks ago.

The district opened its first COVID-19 vaccination center last week, administering 100 doses of the Moderna vaccine to district employees 65 and over at the Roybal Learning Center. It had initially anticipated receiving many more doses, but due to delays in shipment of the doses because of winter storms that slammed parts of the country last week, fewer doses were administered. The district will resume vaccinations at Roybal on Tuesday, a district spokeswoman said.

The district also announced plans last week to operate a mega vaccination site at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, with plans of expanding to other locations, pending county approval.

To get preschools and elementary schools in LAUSD reopened, district officials are looking to vaccinate 25,000 employees. The two vaccines currently on the market require a two-dose regimen that would take about six weeks after the first dose is injected to achieve maximum effectiveness.

UTLA did not respond to a message asking if union leaders feel an April 9 reopening date would be feasible. Besides vaccinating school employees, the union is adamant that overall community infection rates decrease further before having students and staff return to campuses and is contemplating a refusal to report for in-person work should that become mandatory.

SEIU, meanwhile, announced Monday it had reached an agreement with the district to bring back thousands more custodians, food service and afterschool workers and others to prepare for the reopening of schools.

“As education workers, we understand it is urgent to restore services to students – especially the most vulnerable,” Max Arias, executive director of SEIU Local 99, said in a statement. “We believe this agreement begins to lay the groundwork for a safe return to in-person instruction while balancing the health and safety of students, school workers and the entire school community.”

According to the union, employees currently working at the district’s Grab & Go meal sites, district warehouses and COVID-19 testing, vaccination and child care centers will receive priority for vaccine access, and all other employees who must return to work in person will first be offered the vaccine before being being required to show up in person.

Additionally, workers mandated to work onsite will receive an additional $5-per-hour bump in pay until in-person instruction resumes and all other employees are required to be back on campuses, and workers who must quarantine will qualify for emergency paid sick leave.

The district also announced Monday the launch of a Microsoft app, called Daily Pass, that the district is using to make it easier for students and staff to return to campuses.

“We built the nation’s most comprehensive  school-based COVID testing program and are now launching the first system which can coordinate health checks, COVID tests and vaccinations all in one simple, easy-to-use App,” Beutner said. “We’re the first school district in the nation to implement a system like this and, as far as we know, the largest employer in the country to use something like this to create the safest possible environment in the workplace.”

When in-person instruction resumes, students and staff will be required to complete a daily health screening through the app, which then will generate a unique Quick Response, or QR, code granting them access to a school site for that particular day, assuming they have no symptoms and have not tested positive for the coronavirus. Students and staff must also pass a temperature check at the entrance to be admitted onto school grounds.

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