Stats needed for LA County elementary schools to reopen are within sight.
With coronavirus rates easing, Los Angeles County is on course to hit a key state threshold within two weeks — a statistical landmark that would allow elementary schools to reopen, the county’s chief public health officer told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Feb. 9. But with a post-Super Bowl surge still a possibility, and pitched political and potential legal battles brewing within local communities, reopening that soon is far from a guarantee.
On Tuesday, the county reported 227 new deaths and 3,353 cases of COVID-19, bringing totals to 18,360 and 1,152,239, respectively. Hospitalizations dipped below 4,000 for the first time since Dec. 10. Pasadena, which runs its own health department, reported two new fatalities, for a total of 280, and 23 new cases, for a total of 10,531. Long Beach’s death toll rose by 5, to 727, and 168 new cases increased its total to 49,771.
The county’s adjusted daily case rate on Tuesday improved from 38.7 average daily new cases per 100,000 to 31.7, according to the state’s updated metric. To open in-person transitional-kindergarten-through-6th-grade classes, the state requires an average of 25 new daily cases per 100,000.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the dramatic reduction, coupled with a 77% dip in the 7-day average number of daily cases and a 42% fall in hospitalizations since early January, were sufficient signs of progress to update education administrators on the state’s new compliance directives for re-opening. But even if the county says elementary schools can re-open sometime soon, that doesn’t necessarily mean every district will do so immediately.
Muddying the picture:
- Public health leaders will know in a couple of weeks whether gatherings to watch Sunday’s Super Bowl will fuel a spike in caseloads;
- The daily death toll — a lagging indicator — remains high. The count topped 200 again Tuesday after dipping below 100 for a couple of days ;
- And, perhaps most significant, the complex politics of reopening beset many districts.
L.A. Unified — the second-largest in the nation — has not agreed to a firm timetable for reopening with its powerful teachers union. Both the superintendent and UTLA leadership agree, however, that they want school employees vaccinated before students and staff return. With vaccines in scant supply, it’s uncertain how long that will take.
Superintendent Austin Beutner said about 25,000 LAUSD employees who work at preschool and elementary school sites aren’t yet eligible to be inoculated yet, during his latest pitch for school employees to be prioritized. Because of the unpredictability of the vaccine supply, Ferrer could not commit doses to any particular district.
Meanwhile, City Councilman Joe Buscaino introduced a motion Tuesday asking the L.A. City Attorney to explore all legal options — including a lawsuit — to reopen LAUSD campuses. “We can and should immediately open schools with the legally allowable 25% student capacity with the goal of fully reopening our schools safely and soon,” he said.
Beutner, who accused Buscaino of political grandstanding, appealed to “all who care so much about schools” to work toward a common goal of a possible 60-day reopening timetable.
L.A. County remains in the “purple” or “widespread” virus tier, according to the state. To reach the less-stringent red level — necessary for sixth grade and above to reopen — the county’s daily case rate must fall to 7 or fewer new daily cases per 100,000 population.
Some schools received waivers last year to reopen, but that program ended in January. While no new waivers are being accepted, TK-Grade 2 requests granted before the program’s end remain valid and those in-person classes can continue.
For all other grade levels up to 6th grade, the case rate has to come down to 25 daily cases per 100,000 before applying to re-open, Ferrer said.
Every school in the county can open for “high-need” students in small groups in grades K-12. More than 1,700 such schools that have filed such plans.
“I just feel like everybody now is saying let’s get kids back to school,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn. “Many of my colleagues have already talked about the mental health challenges and how much they’re (the students are) losing. Many people think that reopening our economy is dependent on getting our kids back to school.”
Ferrer said the first test would come in the next two weeks, if case rates come down and schools are in a position to re-open. She noted that it’s possible that once the county hits the red tier, junior high and high schools could open before other business sectors get the green light.