LOS ANGELES — It's February, but in teacher Zhazzmin Coffey's kindergarten classroom at one of Inner City Education Foundation's View Park campuses, the calendar indicates it's still March — the last time she had kids in her classroom.
"We are teaching them how to start your sentences with capital letters, end with periods, have finger spaces, and most importantly listen for all the sounds you hear in a word and write as many of them down as possible," Coffey said as little faces stared back at her from her laptop.
Coffey said virtual teaching has been challenging, adding she knows she could do so much more for her kids in person.
"I can't wait to see my students," Coffey said. "I know they want to be here. Especially now, seeing their growth, I want to be able to hug them and say, 'Ah, I'm so proud of you!'"
The decline in COVID-19 cases around Los Angeles is good news, but it has also placed new pressure on schools to reopen. Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDC experts say it's safe for schools to reopen even if most teachers haven't been vaccinated. The LAUSD teachers' union, UTLA, has rejected that notion.
Taylor Moore, ICEF school psychologist, has been meeting with students in-person since October to accurately assess a student's need for an independent education program.
"It is much easier, more clear, and accurate when we see the kids in person," Moore said.
She said it feels like that risk is manageable because she has total control over the situation, but that wouldn't be the case if all the kids came back.
"I do feel a little apprehensive about having everyone here at one time because it's different when I'm with one kid, it's less riskful [sic] it's not a lot of distractions or other people around. It's just us two," Moore said. "So, it's different than a whole entire classroom. So, I am a bit worried."
What helps her cope with those worries is knowing that ICEF now has weekly COVID-19 testing at alternating school sites, allowing teachers and the 2,500 students, their parents, and others in their household to get tested for free.
"We are more confident to understand what is going on with our population, both families and staff when it comes to COVID so that we can reopen much more confidently," ICEF CEO Parker Hudnut said.
Right now, they have a 2% positivity rate, but Hudnut said he'd be monitoring it as reopening approaches because 82% of ICEF students are Black, 16% are Latino, and those communities have been hit hard by the virus.
A new Axios-Ipsos poll suggests that those communities are even more apprehensive about sending their kids back to school. The study found that about half of Black and Latino parents are extremely or very concerned about schools reopening too quickly, that's compared to 25% of white parents.
That's why Hudnut said it is so important for him to know what is going on with his student population before classes resume.
"We don't control vaccine distribution," Hudnut said. "We can now control the testing, which is very important. But I would certainly prefer to have all of our educators vaccinated before we invite students back."
Until a vaccine becomes available, ICEF teachers, parents, and students will have the opportunity to keep getting tested regularly.
"Having this resource available for our community is good. It's helpful, and hopefully, with all of these measures being put in place, we'll be able to come back at a faster rate," Coffey said.