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LA County Is Eligible To Reopen Schools. But LAUSD Teachers' Union Wants Vaccines, Fewer COVID-19 Cases

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A sign at Thomas Starr King Middle School, an L.A. Unified campus in Silver Lake, flashes public health messages during the COVID-19 crisis on April 1, 2020. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)
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For the first time since the pandemic began, L.A. County has reached a threshold for reopening elementary schools. But that doesn't mean Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest school district, will be inviting students back anytime soon.

The LAUSD teacher's union, United Teachers Los Angeles, is pushing back against calls to reopen until teachers are eligible for vaccines and COVID-19 cases drop even lower.

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In the last five days, the county coronavirus case rate fell to 20 positive cases per 100,000 people. That's still in the most restrictive "purple" tier, but it meets the state's recently revised guidelines for in-person instruction.

"Suddenly, as more infectious and fatal variants are spreading, the state claims it's safe to reopen. Educators cannot support a broad physical reopening of schools until school staff required to work in person have access to vaccinations, L.A. County is out of the purple tier and reaches much lower community transmission rate, and all schools have strict multi-layered mitigation strategies in place -- such as COVID testing, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation/quarantine procedures," UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement Tuesday.

In order to reopen, L.A. Unified would need to submit a draft safety plan to the state and county health departments with the approval of UTLA and other union partners.

The L.A. County Office of Education acknowledged that in a statement:

"Case rates are one element of the school reopening process. School districts must address safety measures and other considerations to return students and staff to school campuses."

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In a press conference Tuesday, Los Angeles Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reiterated the county's safety expectations for classrooms:

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The L.A. County Public Health Department's guidelines for reopening elementary schools. (Courtesy of the L.A. Department of Public Health)

According to Ferrer, 12 local school districts, including LAUSD, have submitted safety plans and received approval from the county. The hold-up for the L.A. Unified district has been reaching an agreement with UTLA.

The district and the teachers' union were hoping to come to an initial agreement in late January, but bargaining has now stretched on for weeks longer as vaccinations and case thresholds have emerged as sticking points.

UTLA leaders have made it clear they don't support a return to campus in the purple tier. The union also wants for all teachers to be vaccinated before returning to campuses, a precaution that Gov. Newsom and officials for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called unnecessary.

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For now, only a handful of non-LAUSD elementary schools that already offered TK-2 instruction under a waiver would be allowed to reopen campuses this week. If those schools wish to expand in-person instruction to grades 3-6, they will need to post a revised safety plan for those grades.

The L.A. County Department of Public Health plans to expand vaccine eligibility to educators starting March 1st, along with other prioritized people, like food industry and emergency service workers.

It's unclear when the county might fall into the somewhat less restrictive "red" tier, the prerequisite for bringing older students back to campus.

"As a reminder, even in our best days...we only qualified for the red tier for one short week," Ferrer said. "I'm confident we can get there, but we all have to stay on track."

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