MONROVIA, Calif. — President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen the majority of America’s schools in his first 100 days in office, yet many local education leaders consider that to be an ambitious goal.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner, who leads the nation’s second largest school district, says returning to school within that time-frame won’t be easy.
“You can’t just click your heels like Dorothy going home to Kansas and say I want to go back to school,” Superintendent Beutner said. “We all do. But it’s gotta be safe.”
Beutner says three things have to happen before doors open: a clear, uniform state standard for reopening, staff vaccinations, and a significant drop in COVID-19 cases, particularly in communities of color.
“The red zone is Los Angeles. We’re not getting there by February 1st. I wish we were, but we’re not,” Superintendent Beutner said. “The health experts tell us March 1st might be a long shot. But let’s get everyone vaccinated. Let’s start working on it.”
A vaccine is what many teachers say they need in order to feel comfortable returning to a classroom.
“I don’t believe anyone should have to make a choice between their life and their livelihood,” said LAUSD teacher Nicole Patin.
Patin has taught at Arleta High School in the San Fernando Valley which is now a COVID hotspot. Many of her students have told her recently they have tested positive for the virus. She’s taught as many as 46 students in one classroom and says she won’t feel safe until class sizes are reduced and PPE is required, in addition to receiving the vaccine.
Some in the medical community believe the first 100 days is a very attainable goal. A team of 32 doctors at UCSF recommended to Gov. Gavin Newsom that schools reopen as soon as February 1.
Dr. Jeanne Noble who leads a COVID Response team believes it can happen.
“I think we could get kids frankly back to school much more quickly than 100 days and try to salvage some of this school year that’s remaining,” Dr. Noble said.
Dr. Noble says data supports reopening. She points to a study at Duke University where researchers followed 90,000 students and 10,000 teachers at North Carolina public schools over nine weeks where many students of color attend.
“During those nine weeks there were 32 cases of campus based school-based COVID transmission and not a single case of student to teacher transmission,” Dr. Noble said. “That’s incredibly reassuring data.”
Mandatory mask-wearing, hand-washing and physical distancing were named as reasons for low transmission at the North Carolina schools.
The El Monte City School District has found similar success. Learning pods have been open even as cases are on the rise in the city.
Superintendent Dr. Maribel Garcia says they opened to 400 students whose parents are essential workers. Each learning pod has up to 10 students and two instructional aids who help as students learn online from their teacher. They haven’t had any COVID transmissions so far.
“We tell our community that the public health guidelines they work,” Dr. Garcia said. “They are effective and if we follow them to the T people are safe.”
Yet, Dr. Garcia isn’t ready to open doors to the entire TK-8 population of over 8,000 students because community COVID cases are too high, and families aren’t willing to return.
“Early on mid-summer 55% of our families said they would be willing to come back. By late August that shifted. 75% of our families said we are not ready to come back and it stayed at that level,” Dr. Garcia said. “Our families are pretty much saying we want to wait for this surge to decrease.”
Back at LAUSD, Superintendent Beutner agrees a hybrid model of online and in-person learning is most likely what school will look like when doors reopen. But, case rates still need to fall and vaccinations need to happen.
“If we get that done maybe March 1. If not God willing some time in April,” Beutner said.
Gov. Newsom launched Safe Schools for All and has allocated $2 billion to assist schools in reopening as early as February.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated the school district hasn’t had any COVID cases. The story has been changed to reflect that there have not been any COVID transmissions to date. (January 20, 2021)