Southern California schools possibly weeks away from reopening for in-person learning

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Wednesday, February 10, 2021
SoCal schools may be weeks away from reopening for in-person learning
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As the distribution of vaccines starts to ramp up, several counties across Southern California are inching closer to the possibility of being able to reopen more schools for in-person learning.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- As the distribution of vaccines starts to ramp up, several counties across Southern California are inching closer to the possibility of being able to reopen more schools for in-person learning.

Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties all have different challenges and factors to consider, but they all have a similar goal: get kids back in the classroom.

Los Angeles County

L.A. County could be weeks away from being allowed to reopen schools for in-person learning, though the process could be slowed down by an effort to vaccinate teachers before that happens.

City Councilman Joe Buscaino on Tuesday introduced a motion that would ask the city's lawyers to explore legal options that would compel the Los Angeles Unified School District to reopen, but LAUSD officials say it's not the district that's keeping campuses closed.

They pointed to guidelines that have forced them to stay shuttered because of the county's coronavirus infection rates.

Under current state guidelines, L.A. County must have an adjusted average daily new case rate of 25 per 100,000 residents to allow students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade to return to class. As of Tuesday, the county's state-adjusted rate was 31.7 per 100,000 residents.

Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer says case numbers are steadily declining and that the county could meet that threshold in a matter of weeks.

"We are only weeks away from reducing transmission in L.A. County to a level where elementary schools will be allowed by the state to offer in-class instruction, provided they adhere to all state and county directives," Ferrer said in a statement. "Schools that decide to open will need to require masking, distancing and routine testing. Please do your part to continue to slow the spread so that our recovery journey does not suffer a setback."

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Buscaino's motion, if adopted, would direct the city attorney to pursue options to force schools to reopen, including initiating litigation or joining existing litigation. There was no immediate timeline on when the motion will come up for a vote.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer issued a statement Tuesday in response to the motion, suggesting a lawsuit may not be the best way forward.

"We all understand how urgently important it is to reopen our schools, and to do so safely," he said. "The best way to achieve these shared goals is to work together, not as adversaries. I will help in any way I can."

Councilman Buscaino says that parochial and privates schools in L.A., which have been in classrooms since August, have been successful in avoiding outbreaks.

"I know the smaller school districts are no L.A. Unified School District, but we have struggling students today. I'm mindful.. I speak today as a father, knowing that a lot of the students in our disadvantaged communities are suffering the most.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said in-person instruction can resume safely even if teachers are not vaccinated, so long as other COVID-19 protocols are being followed.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner and leaders of the United Teachers Los Angeles union have said teachers and school staff should be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. But the slow rollout of vaccines in L.A. County means teachers still aren't eligible to receive the shots, which are restricted primarily to health care workers and residents aged 65 and over.

Ferrer said Tuesday that depending on future availability of vaccine, teachers and other front-line essential workers could become eligible in a matter of weeks. But even when they do, that group of essential workers includes more than 1 million people, meaning it will take time to get them all vaccinated with two doses that must be administered three to four weeks apart.

Inland Empire

Meanwhile, elementary schools in San Bernardino County could return to in-class instruction this month as new coronavirus infections have dropped significantly in recent weeks.

Recent trends suggests that county elementary schools could meet state criteria to reopen next week. The county is currently reporting about 33 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents.

However, it's unclear if the San Bernardino Unified School District will reopen even if they meet that threshold. Last fall, the school board voted to continue distance learning through the end of the 2021 school year.

Riverside County is dealing with a slightly higher case rate. Officials there say they could meet the state criteria, an average daily new case rate of 25 per 100,000 residents, to reopen elementary schools in the next three weeks.

The Murrieta Valley Unified School District is anticipating a mid-March reopening.

Orange County

In Orange County, some schools are already fully open for in-person instruction.

Others in the county have received waivers to resume in-person instruction for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, but according to county officials, it is continuing with a phased reopening, based on state criteria.

City News Service contributed to this report.