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The L.A. schools superintendent and the head of the teachers union have responded with outrage over an L.A. City Councilman's proposal to sue the school system to force campuses to reopen — and also are taking on others after a week of intensifying pressure to swiftly restore in-person classes.
The litigation gambit was announced late Thursday afternoon by City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who said he hopes to win support from a majority of council members. He is modeling the effort on litigation filed by San Francisco last week against its school district.
L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner responded forcefully Friday.
"Grandstanding political stunts like this are precisely why schools in Los Angeles remain closed," Beutner said. "Elected leaders from Sacramento to Los Angeles City Hall need to put deeds behind their words and take the steps necessary to actually put schools and the children they serve first."
Beutner then took a wide swing beyond Buscaino — at the city, county and state — for failing to take steps that could have more quickly controlled the virus, for choosing not to put teachers higher on the list for vaccines and for not fully reimbursing L.A. Unified for its distribution of meals to the community and its internally developed coronavirus-testing program.
"Los Angeles is a national example of how governmental dysfunction has allowed the virus to rampage out of control," the superintendent said. "It was not the decision of Los Angeles Unified to reopen card rooms or indoor malls before infection rates were low enough to unlock the schoolyard gates," he said.
Beutner's response comes days after the new director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Biden administration, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians spoke of the importance for schools to swiftly and safely reopen.
Beutner and teachers union leaders have cited experts who urge a more cautious approach to reopening, especially in hard-hit Los Angeles areas served by the nation's second-largest school district.
Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, also took on reopening issues in a Friday afternoon broadcast on social media. The union, currently in negotiations with the district about what a return to campus will look like, has said teachers need to be vaccinated as a prerequisite for their classroom return.
"When Gov. Gavin Newsom says schools are safe to reopen without vaccine, he should also tell us what he believes a safe number of deaths associated with that would be," said Myart-Cruz, whose union represents teachers, nurses counselors and librarians.
"There are some lines being crossed, whether it's news anchors, radio hosts or frustrated parents who are spewing hate, racism and misogynistic behavior. And we have to call out the privilege there," Myart-Cruz said. "Not all parents are experiencing this crisis the same way. For too many Black and brown families, this pandemic has meant economic disaster, the loss of their loved ones, their homes."
She added: "If this disease was disproportionately killing white children, parents and grandparents, the response to COVID-19 from our politicians would have looked very different."
L.A. Unified students have almost exclusively taken their classes online since March amid coronavirus-forced campus shutdowns. While most county school districts' systems also are shuttered, many have offered in-person services to students with special needs, such as those learning English or students with disabilities. A smaller number of school districts — and many private schools — also have reopened under specially approved waivers for students from transitional kindergarten through second grade.
Generally, the districts that are offering in-person instruction serve more affluent communities with lower infection rates compared with L.A. Unified.
State guidelines allow L.A. Unified to bring back up to 25% of enrollment onto campus at a given time to serve students with special needs. The district began providing some in-person services in October, an effort that reached fewer than 1% of students before Beutner ordered a new hard shutdown in December — when coronavirus infections spiked to their highest levels.
County health officials strongly urged the total shutdowns to continue through January, but leave closure and reopening decisions to the discretion of local school officials, when it comes to using approved waivers and serving students with special needs.
"We can reopen now for our most vulnerable students," Buscaino said, responding to Beutner. "But LAUSD has refused to restart those services after the surge. That’s the first step they should be taking immediately."
Earlier litigation — filed on behalf of advocacy groups — that made similar arguments against L.A. Unified was unsuccessful.
Separately, a lawsuit over the quality of the district’s distance-learning program continues to work its way through the legal system. In that litigation, several parents — with the help of advocacy groups — are seeking a court order to increase learning time and supports for students and families during distance learning.
In a statement, L.A. school board member Nick Melvoin supported many of Beutner's points, including his opposition to a lawsuit. All the same, he added, "it's also true that L.A. Unified needs to do all it can under the law and our current authority, limited though it may be, to provide in-person options for kids."
Board member Tanya Franklin, whose board district overlaps with Buscaino's council district, said she hoped the councilman could collaborate on providing better broadband infrastructure so students could connect online more effectively from home.
"Let’s close the digital divide, which is most severely impacting our students in Watts and Harbor Gateway, communities we both represent," Franklin said.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's office declined to respond directly regarding the lawsuit or the criticisms against the city but pointed to Garcetti's offer last week to mediate negotiations between L.A. Unified and the teachers union over rules for operating reopened campuses.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.