LOS ANGELES (CN) — Nearly one year after the complete closure of all schools across Los Angeles County, health officials there say elementary school students can head back into the classroom thanks to a recent drop in new Covid-19 cases.
LA remains in the most restrictive health tier under California’s guidelines, but managed to pass the threshold to reopen schools over the weekend. The news comes after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated guidelines last week that structured how schools should bring students back into the classroom after a long period of virtual learning.
In March 2020, parents, teachers and students were given just a few days’ notice that schools across the county would be moving to remote classrooms as the novel coronavirus began to spread. The hope was this virtual classroom scenario would be temporary. But LA County became the epicenter for the virus and since then the county has weathered two major surges that brought widespread infection, overcrowded hospitals and deaths.
County health officials continue to report hundreds of new deaths each day. On Tuesday, 120 new deaths and 1,200 new cases were reported. But in the last five days, the county has seen a significant drop in new cases and is now below 25 cases per 100,000 residents — a key threshold reached Sunday.
Health officials did not wait long, announcing Monday evening that elementary schools could reopen under the state’s health guidelines. Despite thousands of new Covid-19 cases reported in the last week, LA County Public Health officials said school districts can apply to resume in-person classes for students in grades TK through the 6th.
“It is understandable that there are many parents who do not currently feel comfortable sending their children back to school for on-site learning,” said LA County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer. “There are teachers and staff that may feel different, just like there are parents that may feel differently. School communities have to come together to make this work.”
That apprehension is shared by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union that represents rank and file teachers at LA Unified School District. In a statement, the union said “the path to a safe reopening” needs to include vaccinating all teachers and school staff, infection control habits like wearing face coverings, and a lower the rate of transmission in the county.
“While LA educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms, the risk of community transmission of Covid-19 in Los Angeles County is still too high,” the union said.
In a statement Tuesday, UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz added: “Resuming in-person instruction when cases are so high and without proper health and safety protocols will result in a yo-yo effect of closures, upending the very educational stability that our students and communities deserve."
Ferrer said vaccinations for teachers and school staff will start on March 1, but vaccine shortages continue to impede the process. Farmworkers, people in food service and emergency responders will also be eligible in California around the same time, so it’s unclear when the state will have enough vaccines to inoculate all the teachers and staff.
And the county still cannot allow in-person classes to resume for older students. Under the state guidelines, the county would have to escape the most restrictive health tier and see the 5-day case rate drop to 7 new cases per 100,000 residents.
Worry of the virus spreading among students is a concern for all health officials, but Ferrer noted that schools are not “high-risk settings” if school officials follow the infection control guidelines.
Some form of in-person schooling has been in place since last year with leaner classrooms meeting on campus. Roughly 132,000 students and 43,000 staff have been on campus since September and health officials say they’ve tracked outbreaks and testing in those settings.
School doors will not reopen unless a school district complies with state and county health guidelines, which includes upgrades to the ventilation system and making sure students and teachers can practice physical distancing. Students will learn in small groups separated from the rest of their classmates.
In short, the school that students left last March will not be there when they return.
“This is a steep hill to climb. For the schools that have reopened, there’s nothing easy about making the modifications that are required,” Ferrer said. “From making sure that everyone is always wearing a mask, to making sure you have these stable cohorts that are not mixing. The reality is that as students return to classrooms — those who have returned and those who may return in the future — the classroom setting looks very different right now than it looked like a year ago.”
Governor Gavin Newsom joined the chorus of officials who are optimistic that schools can reopen safely.
“We need to get our schools safely reopened: Kindergarten to 6th grade. We can do that safely,” Newsom said during a press briefing Tuesday. “On schools we still have more work to do.”
He said getting special needs students, those in the foster system and homeless children back into the classroom is a high priority.
“We care about equity,” said Newsom. “This is the issue that should define our frame, emphasis and focus.”