LAUSD officials say full school reopenings beyond their control; Buscaino ponders legal action
Even as Los Angeles Unified School District officials stress that certain factors impacting how soon they can reopen schools — such as the level of COVID-19 cases in the county — are beyond their control, one city councilman who wants to look at legal options to compel LAUSD to return students to classrooms insists there are actions the district could take to provide in-person instruction at least to its most vulnerable pupils now.
And at least one school board member agrees.
A day after L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino said he’ll introduce a motion next week asking the city attorney to review legal options against the nation’s second-largest school district, LAUSD on Friday, Feb. 5, fired off two statements which stressed that the level of coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County has never been low enough to meet state or county thresholds for general school reopenings. Both statements accused the councilman of political theater.
In one statement, the school board and superintendent said the district has the proper safety measures in place, such as having upgraded air-filtration systems and personal protective equipment, and that it’s not for lack of preparedness that schools remain shuttered.
“The problem is COVID levels in the Los Angeles area have not for a single day since March met the state standards for the reopening of schools. We cannot break state law to reopen schools,” the statement said.
Shortly afterward, Superintendent Austin Beutner released his own statement, doubling down on the idea that the level of COVID cases in LA County is beyond the district’s control. He also took aim at decisions by county officials to permit other businesses to reopen before conditions are safe enough for school campuses to reopen. LAUSD officials have long suggested that such misguided priorities have kept COVID case rates high, therefore prolonging schools’ ability to reopen.
“Los Angeles is a national example of how governmental dysfunction has allowed the virus to rampage out of control,” Beutner stated. “It was not the decision of Los Angeles Unified to reopen card rooms or indoor malls before infection rates were low enough to unlock the schoolyard gates. … And it was not the decision of Los Angeles Unified to delay providing vaccinations to school staff in Los Angeles.”
But Buscaino noted that LAUSD is permitted by law to bring back high-needs learners — up to 25% of a school’s population at a time — for in-person instruction even if COVID case rates remain too high for all students to return.
“They have the authority to do just that,” Buscaino said in an interview. “Why isn’t that happening today?”
The councilman dismissed suggestions that he is grandstanding. As the father of two LAUSD students and as someone who’s married to an LAUSD administrator and has two sisters teaching in the district, Buscaino said the prolonged school closures has become a personal matter.
He also said it’s a matter of equity, as students in more affluent, neighboring school districts or those in private schools have already returned to classrooms.
“Why not us? I’m at my wits’ end,” he said.
“My goal is to elevate this discussion, which should have taken place last year,” he said, adding that the latest opinions from the medical community suggest there are ways to reopen schools safely.
Earlier this week, the Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics called for schools to reopen, and the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s OK to reopen schools before teachers are vaccinated — a position which Gov. Gavin Newsom backed.
Also this week, some 200 healthcare professionals, including internists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, psychiatrists and others, signed an open letter urging schools in LA County to reopen as soon as possible, saying that the harm to students’ emotional and mental wellbeing from being kept out of school so long is worse than the potential risk of a viral transmission.
Buscaino’s comments also come the same week the city of San Francisco sued the local school district for allegedly failing to plan for promptly returning students to classrooms.
While LAUSD officials have been quick to note that they can’t legally reopen schools to every student at the moment, the district can bring back some of its highest-needs students for in-person instruction. Although the district provided some in-person services to these students before a December surge in COVID cases forced them to shut down campuses, the number of students it brought back in the fall never reached the maximum level permitted by the state or county. Additionally, LAUSD has kept its campuses closed since the December surge while neighboring districts have welcomed students back.
LAUSD and the local teachers union have yet to agree on a school-reopening plan, missing a self-imposed deadline of Jan. 24 for coming to terms on providing in-person services to high-needs students and on a hybrid instructional model.
School board member Nick Melvoin, in a series of tweets Friday, said although the district has never been allowed by law to fully reopen schools because of high COVID rates — and that “a lawsuit won’t get those numbers down” — “it’s also true that LA Unified needs to do all it can under the law and our current authority, limited though it may be, to provide in person options for kids.”
Melvoin said he’s asked for a plan and updated agreement with the teachers union to allow the district to serve more students in-person than last semester — until more general reopenings can occur.
“I agree with our Superintendent that we need government cooperation, not infighting, to get our kids safely back in school,” he tweeted. “I also believe that we need to do more for high need students now—we can.”
Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD teachers, said in her weekly update that calls for schools to immediately open are driven by politics, not science, adding that several epidemiologists have called for a national lockdown because more easily transmissible variant strains of the coronavirus have been found.
In LAUSD, which has its own COVID testing program, one in three children have tested positive for the virus, Myart-Cruz said. But children often show no signs of infection, she said, adding that claims that transmissions don’t occur in schools are flawed due to a lack of testing of asymptomatic students and incomplete contact tracing in many places.
“Vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, and low community transmission rates, are a part of the solution to reopen schools safely — and that is the path we continue to pursue,” she said. “That is the path based on science and the path that puts the health and safety of our school staff, our students, and their families before politics.”