LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Unified School District Wednesday opened its first school-based COVID-19 vaccination center, but shots will only be offered to people who qualify for the inoculations as health care workers or who are age 65 or over.
The center will be located at Roybal Learning Center, 1200 Colton St., near downtown Los Angeles. Moderna vaccines will be administered by LAUSD school nurses and other licensed health care professionals.
The county plans to expand the availability of vaccinations on March 1 to various classes of essential workers, including teachers. Also eligible will be child care workers, food and agricultural workers, including grocery store workers, and those in emergency services and law enforcement.
Those groups include at least 1.3 million people, and given the county's limited supply of vaccine, it will take weeks if not months to get all of them vaccinated.
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner has been pushing for schools to be used as vaccination sites, given their strategic locations in communities that make them easily accessible.
The opening of the Roybal center site comes one day after the county rate of new COVID-19 cases dropped low enough to allow schools to resume in-person classes for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. The county's case rate dropped to an average of 20 new cases per 100,000 residents, easily meeting the state threshold of 25 per 100,000 residents.
Although meeting the threshold allows elementary schools to reopen, it does not require them to do so. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday that 12 of the 80 school districts in the county have already had reopening plans approved, and plans for two more districts were being reviewed.
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. She noted that LAUSD is among the 12 districts that have had safety plans approved.
LAUSD, however, will not be immediately returning to in-person instruction, with its teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, insisting that all teachers and school staff be vaccinated before returning to campuses. The union also wants campuses to remain closed until the county's COVID case rate drops to seven cases per 100,000 residents -- low enough to move the county out of the restrictive "purple" tier of the state's economic reopening roadmap.
The union issued a statement Tuesday saying reopening schools while the county is still in the "purple" tier will "almost certainly lead to an increase in infections and school closures, creating even more instability and frustration."
"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.
Campuses in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District also won't be opening right away. A tentative labor agreement between the district and its teachers union states that "vaccines must be available to teachers and campus staff for a period of 15 days prior to students returning." That clause will keep the district's campuses closed until at least mid-March.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued school- reopening guidelines last week, stating that vaccinations for teachers should not be a pre-requisite for in-person learning to resume. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has proposed a $6.6 billion plan for reopening campuses and providing funding for safety protocols on campuses, has also said schools can reopen before teachers and staff are vaccinated.
Ferrer said Tuesday 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 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."
She said she was confident that if schools adhere to required safety protocols, the risk of infection is low. She noted that more than 2,200 schools have had some form of in-person offerings -- such as child care, instruction for high-needs students and under waivers for the youngest students -- since September, and infections have been relatively rare, with 86 outbreaks of three or more cases reported in that five-month period. Most of those outbreaks occurred during the severe winter surge in cases countywide.
Beutner, who has supported UTLA in its call for vaccinations for teachers, said Monday that beyond that issue, the district has done its part in comprehensively ensuring that every campus is safe and ready to welcome back students, including:
• retrofitting 80 million square feet of school buildings to make sure air is properly filtered;
• cleaning and sanitizing every room in every school;
• providing masks and PPE;
• reconfiguring classrooms and facilities to maintain social distance; and
• creating a school-based COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program.
Ferrer said schools that want to reopen will have to enforce face- covering and social distancing requirements, and students will be limited to small, fixed groups, meaning students will be with the same group of classmates, with no interaction with other groups of students. Schools will also have to maintain regular testing programs, have approved ventilation systems and must immediately report any outbreaks of three infections that occur within a 14-day period.
Any schools that do reopen will also have to maintain a remote- learning option for families still wary about sending their children back to campus.
In-person classes cannot resume for grades seven through 12 until the county's rate of new COVID cases falls to seven per 100,000 residents.
California health officials recently released an interactive map that allows Angelenos and others across the state to track the status of campus reopenings. The Safe Schools Reopening Map provides data on the status of reopening and safety planning for school districts, charter and private schools in Los Angeles and across California. Officials said they hope it will help communities and school staff evaluate their own reopening plans.
The map was created through a partnership between the state, county office of education and the California Collaborative in Education Excellence. It can be accessed at https://bit.ly/3jHh1xz.