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Statement by Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner (02-17-21)

CONTACT:                                                                FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Shannon Haber, 213-393-1289                              February 17, 2021

Statement by Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner

LOS ANGELES (February 17, 2021) – For each of the past 341 days, my day has started with the same question: What can we do to get students back in the classroom as soon as possible and in the safest way possible? And it has ended many hours later with the same question. I am painfully aware of the hardship that closed schools inflict on students, their families and the economy in the communities we serve.

As difficult as the decision was to close school classrooms, reopening is even harder. We must balance the learning needs of students, the support we provide to working families and the responsibility to protect the health and safety of all in the school community. We cannot – and will not – compromise on health and safety.

The health practices and protocols in place at our schools exceed the most recent guidance that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last Friday.

An example of the progress Los Angeles Unified has already made was highlighted during the CDC press conference last Friday. A reporter from KNX asked the CDC Director, “Los Angeles Unified put in high-end air filters with the air conditioning system at all campuses, and the filters are equivalent to N95-mask-level filters. I wanted to know if that is part of your recommendation?” and she replied, “That's great. I think that what you are describing is MERV-13 filters and those would be top-line filters…. That would be one of the checkboxes in our toolkit that we would aspire to. So that would be terrific.”

We completed the work on the filtration systems in our schools last May.

The same is true for COVID testing. The CDC recommends key mitigation strategies which include “contact tracing and diagnostic testing in combination with quarantine and isolation.” Los Angeles Unified is already operating the nation’s most comprehensive school-based COVID testing and contact-tracing system, which can test everyone at schools – students and staff – weekly and provide overnight results.

This testing program has been in operation since September.

There were headlines this week when Los Angeles County announced that the state threshold for reopening elementary schools – an adjusted rate of 25 cases per 100,000 people – had been reached.

But in a county as large as Los Angeles, what does that number mean? Take a closer look and one finds that the average LA adjusted case rate of 20 includes communities like La Canada with a case level of less than 2 and a median household income of $175,000. 

Those are not the families Los Angeles Unified serves. In the communities we serve, 80% of the families live in poverty, more than 80% of families are Black and Latino and the rates of infection are significantly higher. 

Many of the communities we serve have levels of the virus 15 times greater and household incomes about 1/6 of those in La Canada.

While overall COVID levels have come down and that’s a very good thing, it’s important to note that large disparities between communities still exist, and they have a direct impact on our ability to reopen schools. Depending upon the school, as many as ¾ of the students who attend are from outside the local community. The implication is clear for schools in Los Angeles Unified – students from a community where the virus is much higher, may attend school in one where it’s lower, and vice versa.

The average rate of infection in an area as sprawling as Los Angeles can be misleading, especially when compared to much smaller and less diverse communities like La Canada.

That’s why the vaccine plays such a critical role in reopening schools as safely as possible in the communities we serve.

There are almost a quarter-million students in preschool and elementary school in Los Angeles Unified. To vaccinate the people who work in these schools, we would need to vaccinate about 25,000 people. You heard that right – vaccinating 25,000 people will allow us to reopen elementary school classrooms for 250,000 children and help their half-million-plus family members start on the path to recovery and allow many of them to go back to work.

Long Beach has already vaccinated all staff who work in the city’s K-2 public schools.

Up North, Berkeley and Hillsborough will begin vaccinating all who work in their schools this week. If California is providing vaccines for those who work in school communities with a median household income of $250,000 like Hillsborough where less than 2% of students are from families living in poverty and there has only been 266 cases of the virus, then why is it not doing the same for communities like Boyle Heights where families earn about $33,000 and close to 17,000 people have had the virus and 254 people have died, almost as many as contracted the virus in Hillsborough. 

California received about 1.3 million doses of vaccine last week. To provide vaccinations for school staff to reopen all of the early education centers and elementary schools in Los Angeles Unified would use less than 1% of the vaccines available in the state over the next two weeks.

Vaccinating school staff needs to be done in an organized manner. It won’t be sufficient to vaccinate some school staff now and others far down the road.

That’s why Los Angeles Unified is offering to open a vaccination center at Hollywood Park dedicated for all Los Angeles County public and private school employees. We want to provide a service to the entire education community and are working closely with County Health authorities on this comprehensive approach.

The Hollywood Park effort is a partnership with the Los Angeles Rams, Hollywood Park, the City of Inglewood, Anthem Blue Cross and Cedars-Sinai. It will help school employees avoid the “vaccine lottery” and recognizes that it takes a team at school. A bus driver takes students to school, a school principal unlocks the front door, a teacher leads in the classroom, a cafeteria worker prepares lunch and a custodian keeps the school clean – they’re all connected at school. Coordinated vaccinations for school staff will help reopen schools quickly so we don’t have a situation where teachers at a school are vaccinated, but not the bus driver or vice versa.

At Hollywood Park, Los Angeles Unified school nurses will administer the vaccine and monitor people for adverse reactions. Anthem will provide volunteer clinical personnel and Cedars-Sinai is helping with training.

While some school districts in the County may have other vaccination arrangements already in place, we are prepared to serve any school, public or private, if this program would be of assistance.

Since March we’ve provided nearly 80 million meals to children and 25 million to adults, made certain each of about 500,000 students have the computer and internet access they need to stay connected with their school community and continue learning, and we’ve provided almost half a million free COVID tests in the nation’s most comprehensive school-based testing effort.

Today is a very visible demonstration of our continued commitment to serve the community and reopen schools as soon as possible in the safest way possible.

10 days ago, I announced a plan to reopen schools in 60 days. The clock is ticking. We’ve done our part – school campuses are ready. The community is doing its part to bring down levels of the virus. The final critical piece is vaccinations for all who work in schools. Let’s make that a real priority so we can reopen schools in the next 50 days.