Elementary schools in LA county can start reopening for students.  

The news this week that students attending LA county elementary schools can head back to their classrooms has caused parents to spin, questioning whether it’s really safe for their children to return.

Members of the county’s Board of Supervisors support getting kids back into a brick-and-mortar classroom. And county public health officials formally gave the proverbial “green light” on Tuesday, Feb. 16, for students to receive in-person instruction on campuses as long as approved county and state safety requirements and protocols were in place. Some private schools have, in fact reopened.

The county’s announcements, however, have caused some confusion. Only 30 percent of the county’s schools are reopening.  The rest fall under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and there is currently no immediate return date for the vast majority of public school students back into a regular classroom. The teacher’s union, United Teachers of Los Angeles,  is adamant that all teachers should be vaccinated first.

The announcements have stirred other deep pots of concern.     It’s not an easy decision even for weary parents who now, as the pandemic approaches the one-year mark, have struggled to juggle their own jobs while their kids are at home. It’s been especially difficult for parents who have more than one child who needs help learning at home, but don’t have the ability to help them from falling behind. 

“I’m not comfortable with them going back to school,” said Mago Sato via the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol’s Facebook page.

”I feel like they are rushing them back. I don’t want my kids to go back and sit in class all day with a mask on. They won’t be able to interact with their friends like before. So no, I don’t see what’s the hurry. Just a few weeks ago all students had to get tested and it wasn’t safe but now it’s safe?”

Parents were asked online by The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol if they’re comfortable sending their children back to school at this time.

Cecilia Ortiz noted that her child would have a problem wearing a mask for a long length of time. “No, maybe half a day, because when I asked my 7-yr-old how she felt she said it’s OK. ‘Mom, I’ll take off my mask when I need a break.’ She won’t be able to handle the mask all day.”

“Absolutely no, until they come up with a vaccination for our children,” said Mirella Tovar-Gonzalez. “There is not enough information yet about how COVID affects children.”

“Not until Teachers are vaccinated and office workers, cafeteria and custodians and crossing guards [are vaccinated]” said Betty Mares about her comfort with getting kids back to their schools.

Ana Romo was among several parents who wrote that they want their children to return to a traditional classroom.

“My son was unable to [complete] 3 of his classes all last semester,” Romo said. “Made several, multiple attempts to have school leaders assist and nothing happened. It’s very frustrating trying to reach out and no help is given. #lausd kids are definitely trying; not everyone is the same nor learns at the same time frame.”

Many parents with older children pointed out how difficult it has been to keep them at home because they want to interact socially. But they also question how likely it is to enforce students to wear PPE, and adhere to COVID guidelines. 

“They should finish out the school year remotely, and start back in August,” said Melissa Hughes.  “My kid’s high school has about 4,500 students. I’ll be interested how they will socially distance.”  

“Yes they are falling behind,” said Lisa Klinkenborg Corral. “A lot of kids are not even going to the Zoom classes. So many of them have failed but LAUSD won’t fail them because it costs them [money]. It has dumbed down our kids.

“My husband is a teacher and I can’t believe the stories. Yes, I’m willing to risk the kids for the simple reason [that] as a nurse we are not seeing high numbers in kids. We just had COVID and all three of my kids did great — two days of minor symptoms. I’m from the Midwest ,and they have been in school the whole time. I’d like to see the data on depression and child abuse increases.”

Many parents are questioning whether the push to open schools is more motivated by political and economic pressure instead of student’s health and safety.

“We might as well wait til this school year ends which is soon and let’s see how it is when the new school year starts,” said Yvette E. Balderrama.

“I feel all teachers and staff need to get vaccinated first before returning, to protect them and their family as well as ours. Just a couple more months to see where we are. I don’t understand how they can open schools but a lot of places [businesses] are still closed. They mention that high schools will be closed til they are out of the purple tier but elementary [schools] can open?  I can wait.”

Most parents said they weren’t ready to take the chance without more assurances that it was safe to return. 

“My instincts tell me something doesn’t sound right at this time, following my mommy instinct. Not long ago they claimed that the virus was high out of control now suddenly we are good, something doesn’t smell right,” said Miriam Ortiz.  “At least at this moment [the answer is] ‘No’, next school year, maybe and only for my oldest kid. My younger kids will continue to be homeschooled.”

 “I love my quiet time when the kids are at school, but I would rather they be safe and sound at home than at school if it means getting sick,” said Tracey Carranza-Kverne. 

 “I’m concerned about my 9-year-old’s academic learning and would love for her to go back to in person learning,  it will be the best,” said Karina Sanchez. “But sending her back will be a for sure covid infection. A time bomb. I just don’t see how  it is preventable. Little kids play and run together. And now with the new variants being more infectious I just don’t get my head around how it’s safe to go back.”

While not the majority, some parents said they felt their children were doing better through distance learning, so much so that they plan on continuing to home school.

 “My kids are actually doing better at home” wrote Mary Lopez. “I had never seen more than one “A” for my oldest,[but]  last semester I saw four [A’s} and B’s. So, no worries they are not falling behind and yes, they will continue distance learning.”

Fernanda Gonzales said she has found distance learning to be a good experience that has worked for her child. “My kid is doing great. About the mental health of the kids, I think that’s our responsibility to take care of them. Take them out for walks, hikes, talk to them, do safe activities. Not just leave them in their rooms for them to get depressed. During this pandemic we’ve learned to interact with them and have conversations every day. My child’s health is more important. [We’re]not going back.”

Number of New COVID-19 Cases Declining 

County public health officials agreed to reopen elementary schools because, they say, the county’s rate of new COVID-19 infections had fallen to acceptable levels.

An estimated 1.5 million students in public and private schools countywide have not been able to receive in-person instruction since campuses were closed in March 2020. But state officials have agreed to permit elementary schools to reopen as soon as counties reached an adjusted average new daily case rate of 25 per 100,000 residents.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, county public health director, said Tuesday that LA county had met that threshold level, with new state figures putting the county’s average at 20 per 100,000 residents.

Ferrer said 12 school districts in the county have already had their safety plans approved, and two other districts have plans that are under review. A total of 173 private or charter schools have also had plans approved, with seven other private/charters awaiting approval of their plans.

A full list of the approved districts and schools was not immediately released, but Ferrer said it would eventually be posted on the health department website.

School districts in the county will decide individually whether to actually open their campuses for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. To offer in-classroom instruction, the schools that don’t already have waivers on file with county and state health departments must provide paperwork certifying a full range of safety measures have been implemented to allow their schools to reopen. 

Ferrer said she respects the need for districts to make reopening decisions in partnership with parents and labor groups.

“I’ve always said the decision to open a school gets made by that school’s community,” Ferrer said. “There’s no way to open schools without teachers and staff feeling comfortable being in buildings, and without parents being comfortable about sending their children.

“So this is a pathway forward when there’s a school community that feels like this is the time for them to be able to reopen.”

LAUSD and the Teacher’s Union

Even though LAUSD — the county’s largest district — could reopen elementary schools, the district and the teachers union remain locked in negotiations over when to return to campuses, and under what conditions.

It’s doubtful there will be any in-person instruction on school grounds until the issues are resolved.

Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district’s first COVID-19 vaccine site for eligible employees would open this week at the Royal Learning Center in downtown Los Angeles. 

“A clearly articulated plan to provide vaccinations to school staff in the nation’s second largest school district, combined with the leadership Los Angeles Unified has already shown in preparing its campuses, can be a model for other school districts across the country,” Beutner said.

Otherwise, Beutner said, the district has not done its part to make sure that every campus is safe.

UTLA stands firm in its demands for how its membership will return to in-person instruction. All teachers, LAUSD or otherwise, are not expected to be eligible for vaccinations until March 1. But even when it does become totally available, the limited supply means it will take weeks or even months to fully vaccinate all teachers.

“Resuming in-person instruction when cases are so high and without proper health and safety protocols will result in a yo-yo effect of closures, upending the very educational stability that our students and communities deserve,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said.

Schools will update their information every two weeks on the map, and the California Department of Public Health will add data on reported outbreaks in each school district and information about COVID-19 testing. The map was created through a partnership between the state, the county office of education and the California Collaborative in Education Excellence. It can be accessed at https://bit.ly/3jHh1xz.

City News Service contributed to this report.