Los Angeles District May Not Immediately Reopen Schools, Despite Meeting State Standards

Elementary schools in Los Angeles County may not immediately reopen, despite local health officials saying Monday that the area meets California's COVID-19 infection rate threshold to do so.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said in a statement Monday night it expects to announce soon that the county has reached the state's threshold to reopen elementary schools. The threshold is a COVID-19 case rate of 25 cases per 100,000 residents.

"This encouraging news means that dozens of elementary schools will be permitted to reopen for in-class instruction for students K-6 as early as this week," the statement said. "All schools wishing to reopen must submit plans to the County Department of Public Health and the California Department of Public Health certifying that they have implemented a full range of safety measures to permit a safe reopening."

Schools were informed of the development in an emailed letter, the health department said.

The notice, however, will not result in an immediate return to school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation's second-largest, because district officials and the local teachers union are still in negotiations over what a return to campus would look like.

Chairs are stacked at a public elementary
Elementary schools in Los Angeles County may not immediately open, despite the local health department’s suggestion that the area meets California's COVID-19 infection rate threshold to do so. Above, chairs are shown stacked at a public elementary school in Los Angeles on August 17, 2020. Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said last week that the district is physically prepared to reopen and has done everything that federal CDC guidelines require for a safe reopening.

Beutner noted that the district has gone beyond CDC guidelines by implementing a COVID-19 testing program for the county's schools.

"Los Angeles Unified has done more than any school district in the nation to prepare schools to welcome students back to in-person classes," Beutner said in a February 8 statement.

The CDC released guidelines for reopening schools on Friday. They focus on five key COVID-19 mitigation strategies, which include the universal and correct wearing of face masks; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and improving ventilation; and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.

Vaccinations and testing are not among the key strategies. The CDC, however, calls vaccinating and testing "additional layers" of COVID-19 prevention.

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), a local teachers union, said the CDC guidelines don't do enough for large urban schools.

"We applaud the CDC's efforts for a national strategy to return to in-person instruction, but the new guidelines released on February 12 do not do enough to address the specific challenges of large urban school districts like LAUSD," the union said in a statement on Friday. "Most troubling is that it does not require vaccinations for school staff, six-foot distancing in all schools, nor improved ventilation as a key mitigation measure."

The union added that a path to safely reopening schools must include vaccines for all educators and school staff, lowered community transmission rates, and a multi-tiered mitigation strategy—such as frequent COVID-19 testing, physical distancing and uses of face masks, among other measures.

The CDC guidelines do, in fact, call for physical distancing, mask wearing and improved ventilation. Newsweek reached out to the union for comment but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

"Without important health and safety protocols in place, we know whose lives will be on the line—the low-income communities of color disproportionately impacted by illness and death from the virus," the union said.