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Los Angeles schools will delay in-person student classes and services of any kind while coronavirus infection rates remain high in local communities and teachers remain unvaccinated, Supt. Austin Beutner said Monday, a firm stance that is driving the district toward a mandatory summer session and an extended academic year in 2021-22.
In some of his strongest criticism of state guidance on reopening schools, Beutner called the waiver process that has allowed schools apply to open in-person classes for lower grades "bass ackwards" and called the state's newest coronavirus threshold for reopening elementary schools a "magic number" not adequately explained or justified.
His comments — made after he commemorated the district having provided 100 million meals to families at 63 campus-based Grab and Go centers — come as the district is locked in a new round of negotiations with its teachers union over returning to campus, growing anger among some parents to reopen schools and reluctance among others in hard-hit areas to send their children back.
Questions about the possibility of reopening campuses for kindergarten through sixth grade emerged last week when L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer said declining coronavirus rates in the county could hit the state threshold number in two to three weeks.
The position of L.A. Unified — which serves communities that continue to have infection rates among the highest in California — puts it among the more conservative among the nation's school districts when it comes to the pace of reopening. The vast school system also serves neighborhoods with comparatively low numbers of infections, where some parents are increasingly clamoring to have the option of in-person instruction.
In the fall, the district brought back less than 1% of its enrollment for in-person services and instruction, although state rules allow up to 25% of enrollment on campus for special services at a given time. L.A. Unified reentered a hard lockdown in early December amid the state's rapidly worsening COVID-19 surge.
Beutner took aim Monday at state guidelines that he sees as counterproductive to a safe and faster reopening of all campuses, a view shared by many superintendents statewide.
"Our goal has to be to get COVID down where we can start having all students back," Beutner said in an interview. "And the notion that somehow we have this other process where a few students come back. That's not born in science. That's political."
Beutner criticized the state for prioritizing the opening of card rooms and indoor malls before schools and said teachers need full and immediate access to vaccines — on par with those 65 and older — a step that L.A. County health officials have not taken.
On Monday, Ferrer did not say when vaccines would be available for teachers, citing supply as the key impediment.
High-priority individuals, including teachers, make up "a very big group," about 2.7 million people in L.A. County, Ferrer said. "We have to get a lot more doses in, so that we can move quickly through vaccinating all of our essential workers."
Beutner pointed to the example of Long Beach, which has its own health department, for prioritizing teachers, although the recent rollout in that city did not initially reach as many teachers as officials had hoped.
L.A. Unified and the county were in sync Monday in one effort. Beutner and Hilda Solis, chair of the Board of Supervisors, signed a letter to President Biden asking for additional vaccine doses that could be distributed at local schools to "provide access in the communities hardest hit by the virus."
In the interview, Beutner also criticized the state for allowing waivers to open elementary schools. L.A. County limited waiver reopenings to transitional kindergarten through second-grade classrooms, but L.A. Unified did not apply.
"That's sort of bass ackwards," Beutner said. "Health authorities should say: 'This is safe and appropriate. And this isn't safe and appropriate.'"
"To have 1,037 different interpretations, to me, doesn't make sense," he said, referring to the number of school districts in California. "It's going in the wrong direction." Authorities should "tell us what's safe and appropriate, and that's what we'll try and do."
State and local officials have defended the waivers by noting that schools must post and commit to appropriate safety measures. They also insist that campuses have opened safely using the waiver process, which was discontinued for new applications in January when the state set a new common standard for reopening.
The state will now allow elementary schools to fully reopen once county case rates fall to a seven-day average of 25 or fewer daily cases of coronavirus infections per 100,000 residents. For secondary schools, the case rate is 7 or fewer per 100,000.
Beutner called the 25-per-100,000 figure a "magic number" with insufficient explanation or cited scientific support, although he stopped short of saying the figure was wrong.
The district is in negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles over what a return to on-campus schooling would look like. The union leadership has said teachers must be vaccinated, but that these immunizations alone might not be enough to make schools safe when the infection is widespread in the community.
Beutner said he intends to bring forward a plan for a longer 2021-22 academic year to the next Board of Education meeting. Earlier, he had talked about the possibility of a mandatory summer session for all students.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.