January 28, 2021News
A renewed call to reopen schools is taking place against a backdrop of dangerous levels of COVID-19 infection rates and continuing ICU bed shortages. Even as new, more contagious, and potentially more deadly variants of COVID-19 have been confirmed to be spreading widely in Los Angeles, Gov. Gavin Newsom and LA County Supervisors are lifting stay-at-home protections and allowing outdoor dining. They are doing this while also denying prioritization of vaccines to the essential workers they have once again placed at risk — many of whom are the parents and caregivers of our students.
Just before the holiday surge, LA County was reporting just 1,200 cases a day. On January 27, LA County reported 307 new deaths from COVID and 6,917 new cases – nearly six times the November numbers. County officials said it was unsafe then to reopen schools, so it is certainly unsafe now. UTLA agrees with the California Teachers Association’s position that no school or school district should reopen in a purple-tier rated county.
"By repeatedly prioritizing the wishes of the Chamber of Commerce and the California Restaurant Association over the health of our communities, Newsom and County supervisors have failed to create the safe conditions for our schools to reopen," said UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz.
“Educators want to be back in the classroom but as the pandemic continues to ravage our communities, we are the untenable position of fighting to save lives because our elected officials have failed to do so,” said Myart-Cruz. “The state’s inability to stay the course on necessary, life-saving choices once again disregards our communities and people of color who have been risking their lives and dying at disproportionate rates in LA County and across the state.”
That’s why in December, UTLA joined a group of labor and health organizations to call on the Board of Supervisors for a real lockdown in LA County – a circuit breaker – which would have flattened the curve and put us in a stronger position to reopen safely. That never happened. Instead, the LA County Board continued to allow non-essential businesses such as outdoor gyms and malls to operate even as ICU capacity was at 0%, and approved outdoor dining to resume on Friday.
“We need to stop asking ‘Is it safe to open schools yet?’ and start asking of our county and state officials: ‘What are you willing to do to make schools safe to reopen?’“ said Myart-Cruz.
LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner also said this week that all school staff should be vaccinated before classes can resume. Having staff vaccinated is a critical step forward — but it is not enough in and of itself to reopen schools. Vaccinated individuals may still transmit the virus, and because there is currently no vaccine for children under age 16, our students and especially the family members they go home to, would still be at risk.
We all want the vaccine to be the “silver bullet” that solves this tragic crisis and gets us back to our normal lives, in person with our students. But until community transmission rates go down significantly and/or the vaccines roll out equitably and widely to all impacted communities, reopening schools would put poor and Black and Brown families at even higher risk — the families living in crowded conditions, serving in essential jobs, and already suffering higher death rates and economic loss than affluent white communities. There are growing racial inequities in the vaccine rollout in L.A. County, which is cause for serious concern.
The fluid nature of this crisis is frustrating, but this fact remains: At no time since March 2020 have COVID levels in LA met the state standard for schools to consider reopening. LA County is still firmly in the purple tier and residents are at extremely high risk of infection.
County officials have expressed hope that lifting the stay-at-home protections will not lead people to change their behavior – but this is exactly the inconsistent and confusing message that has led to Los Angeles and California becoming the new epicenter of this deadly pandemic.
This close to widely available vaccines that will protect millions of people, our politicians have a choice: are they going to maximize the number of lives saved, or are they going to maximize the number of deaths they allow?