The Pasadena Unified School District on Thursday joined a growing number of Los Angeles County school systems that are swiftly putting plans in place to begin bringing elementary students back to campus by the end of the month, ending a year of pandemic-forced closures.
The discussion in Pasadena typified those unfolding in many school districts in the county as board members consider a host of issues: safety measures, vaccines for teachers and staff, parent decisions — some who are eager to send their children back and others who are worried and want to continue distance learning.
“This weighs heavily on us," said Pasadena Supt. Brian McDonald, after three hours of public comment, with many people voicing concern about returning to in-person instruction. Some teachers pushed back against the idea of reopening campuses without fully vaccinating staff. But the board agreed it is time to begin a phased-in reopening in the 17,400-student district.
"Given the safety measures that we have in place, and the fact that every single employee will have the opportunity to receive the vaccine, we believe it's time now to return our students to in-person learning."
The board, by a 5-2 vote, approved a plan to bring back students for hybrid learning beginning March 30 in pre-kindergarten through second grade, meaning students will split their time between class and home. Students in third through fifth grades will join them April 13.
Like other school districts, Pasadena Unified cited falling COVID-19 cases in the county and increased access to vaccines for educators and staff in voting to reopen. The district has offered COVID-19 vaccines to all 2,400 employees, and nearly half will be vaccinated by the end of the week, McDonald said.
"The joy of learning is being snuffed out now by isolation, sadness, boredom, frustration of students having to spend hours on their screens," said board Vice President Elizabeth Pomeroy, who voted to approve the reopening timeline.
The board members who voted against the proposal voiced concerns about the unpredictability of the coronavirus and the risks educators, staff and students would be taking.
“You can't put a deadline on safety. It's either safe or not,” said board member Tina Fredericks, who noted that parents advocating for schools to reopen were a minority, and yet, the "loudest person in the room.”
“We just heard three hours of heartbreaking stories from our staff that are fearful for their lives,” she said. “Every day, they would go in and then, you know, do their job. And then they go home and wonder, ‘Am I bringing COVID to my husband, my children?’ Every day they’ll have to worry about that.”
On Monday, educators became eligible to receive vaccinations in L.A. County with the state reserving 10% of doses for this sector. Pasadena and Long Beach, with their own public health departments, have been able to offer vaccinations to all their teachers and employees. Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, will receive a special allocation of 25,000 vaccines by the end of next week to inoculate staff in its elementary schools.
In addition, the state Legislature on Thursday approved Gov. Gavin Newsom's $6.6-billion reopening proposal, which offers financial incentives for elementary schools.
At least 35 of the county's 80 school districts have either opened in some form or are forging ahead with school board-approved reopening plans, according to a survey last week by the Los Angeles County Office of Education and Times research and interviews.
In South Pasadena Unified, students in transitional kindergarten through second grade returned to in-person instruction on Feb. 18, and the district plans to bring back students in third, fourth and fifth grades in the coming weeks. School district employees will be offered the first of two-dose vaccines this week. On Thursday the school board approved a timeline to bring back middle and high school students on a hybrid learning schedules on April 8 and April 15, respectively.
Compton Unified announced it is inviting students in third grade through sixth back to campus Monday, while those in transitional kindergarten will return March 15. According to the district, employees can receive vaccines starting Tuesday.
Norwalk-La Mirada Unified announced this week that it will pursue a phased reopening starting March 29, with special education classes and transitional kindergarten through second grade. Students in third through fifth grades will come back April 12, Supt. John M. Lopez said.
“The decision to reopen schools coincides with the opportunity for our staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccination,” Lopez said in a statement.
It is unclear when Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, will reopen, but the district is aiming for “mid-April.” L.A. Unified, where more than 80% of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, includes areas that have been hit hard by the pandemic, including South Los Angeles and the Eastside.
Long Beach Unified is also on track to bring back students in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade March 29. And if conditions continue to improve, Supt. Jill Baker said middle and high school students could be back on campus in April, with seniors on campus by April 19.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.