LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Despite the insistence of Los Angeles Unified's superintendent and the teachers' union that all educators and staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 before schools reopen, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday vaccinations should not be a prerequisite for returning students to campus.
"I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely," Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. "So while we are implementing the criteria of the advisory committee and of the state and local guidances to get vaccination across these eligible communities, I would also say that safe reopening of schools is not -- that vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools."
The issue of vaccinating teachers and staff has been considered a lynchpin for the reopening of LAUSD campuses. Superintendent Austin Beutner has said schools should not reopen until teachers and staff receive the vaccine, while the United Teachers Los Angeles union has called for vaccines and extensive other safety measures to ensure the safety of educators.
In a recent message to the school community, Beutner said vaccines are "the last piece to help reopen classrooms."
"This will not only protect the health and safety of staff but will provide enormous benefit to children and their families with a faster reopening of schools and of the economy more broadly by enabling the working families we serve to go back to work," Beutner said.
The pace of vaccine administration in the county, however, has dragged slowly due to limited supplies, so teachers have not yet become eligible for the shots unless they are aged 65 or older.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has advanced a statewide school-reopening plan contingent on more than $6 billion in funding to provide protective equipment, COVID testing and other safety protocols at campuses. The state's guidelines call for campuses to reopen for youngest students when local infection rates drop to a seven-day average of 25 new cases per 100,000 residents. Los Angeles County's current state-adjusted new case rate is 38.7 per 100,000.
Newsom said Wednesday he agrees with the CDC that schools can reopen before teachers and staff are fully vaccinated, as long as adequate safety measures are in place.
"We can safely open schools as we process a prioritization to our teachers of vaccinations and still keep our teachers, our para-professionals -- which means bus drivers, our cafeteria workers, janitors that are essential workers to keep our schools safe -- and keep our kids safe at the same time."
Newsom said many schools are already open on a limited basis across the state, with only 87 reported COVID cases in schools last month, despite a statewide surge in cases.
"I'm confident we can get to where we need to go, and that's safely reopening our schools for in-person instruction starting with the younger grades and those with special needs," Newsom said. "I say this not academically or intellectually, but as someone with four young kids. The younger kids are not getting the benefits of distance learning that the older kids are. And I'm very concerned about the equity lens in terms of this conversation, because so many private schools are open. I believe we can safely reopen public schools to in-person instruction with the appropriate level of safety and support and accountability in terms of enforcing the rules of the road."
UTLA officials have adamantly opposed reopening schools while the county remains in the most restrictive "purple" tier of the state's economic reopening matrix. Emerging from the purple tier would require the county's seven-day average new case rate to drop to 7 per 100,000 residents.
Union President Cecily Myart-Cruz blasted Newsom and state officials last week for allowing more businesses to reopen despite elevated case numbers and the emergence of new, more-infectious variants of the coronavirus.
"Educators want to be back in the classroom but as the pandemic continues to ravage our communities, we are the untenable position of fighting to save lives because our elected officials have failed to do so," Myart-Cruz said. "The state's inability to stay the course on necessary, life-saving choices once again disregards our communities and people of color who have been risking their lives and dying at disproportionate rates in L.A. County and across the state."