Los Angeles County to allow limited number of schools to apply for waivers for in-person classes

With the county dodging a post-Labor Day spike in coronavirus cases, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to allow a limited number of schools to apply for waivers to offer in-person instruction for students in pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade.

Based on a motion by Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn, the county will offer waivers for up to 30 schools per week, prioritizing those with the highest number of low-income students who receive free or reduced-price school lunches.

Waivers will be offered equally across all five county supervisorial districts, but if the cap is not reached in any given week, schools with the highest percentage of students qualified for lunch subsidies will be accommodated, regardless of location.

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"All students are entitled to a free and appropriate education. For many of our students most at risk, distance learning is neither free nor appropriate," Barger said. "It is critical that we begin the process of reopening our schools at limited capacity (and) slowly bring students, teachers and staff back to campus."

Waivers will need to be approved by the state. More than 500 schools in the county have already partially opened to offer services to high-need students, but Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said few public schools are among them, something she wants to see change.

"You look at the list of schools that applied -- more than half of them were private, many of them religious schools," she said. "And nothing against private schools and religious schools, but the equity issue is very big here. I want us to be able to help our public schools get an advantage here, but also to be able to keep their students and their staff safe."

Public health director Barbara Ferrer also talked to the board about the possibility of additional businesses reopening, including nail salons and cardrooms, which have been cleared by the state to reopen if individual counties authorize them to do so.

Ferrer said there are only seven card rooms countywide, and she would be open to considering allowing them to open outdoors only without food or beverage served at tables.

Craft breweries have also been pushing hard to reopen on a limited basis, particularly those that traditionally partner with food trucks or catering companies to serve food to patrons.

Ferrer noted that the state's four-tier coronavirus economic-recovery roadmap allows breweries to open if they have an in-house meal program. Los Angeles County is in Tier 1 of that map, the most restrictive level.

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"Breweries and bars, distilleries, are all closed by the state, not a permitted activity in Tier 1, unless they look more like a restaurant," Ferrer said.

Los Angeles County has interpreted that to mean businesses that have a public health permit to serve food, while other counties have allowed breweries and bars to open if they have a food truck on hand.

Hahn pushed for using the looser definition to allow roughly 70 breweries countywide to reopen, saying she believed bars and breweries could be treated differently.

"I don't want to be trapped to think, oh just because we want to incrementally allow breweries ... we would have to open thousands and thousands of bars. I don't think we should be held to that," Hahn said. "I'm much more interested in doing these little incremental openings to throw some lifelines."

Ferrer suggested the issue of defining breweries differently than bars would have to be vetted by county counsel.

The board took no immediate action beyond the motion on schools, but Ferrer seemed to signal coming changes, even before the county achieves a less restrictive status under the state guidelines.

"We're looking at both how essential the activity (is) and the amount of risk it may create," Ferrer said.

Ferrer and members of the board said they were relying on the public and business owners to adhere closely to health restrictions once more schools and businesses are permitted to reopen. The public health director said a county complaint line gets about 2,000 calls a week about noncompliance.

Kuehl warned that if everyone doesn't take the guidelines seriously, businesses will be shut down again. She asked that schools be carefully monitored, but seemed more optimistic that they would take the right steps.

"I know the schools are going to be very, very careful," Kuehl said.

Hahn highlighted the raw calculus behind the county's difficult decisions.

"I know somebody's going to get sick and somebody could probably die for every little bit we open, but that's a responsibility that we're all taking together. And until we get a vaccine, again, walking out your front door you are at risk for catching this deadly, horrible, contagious virus. But we're threading the needle between people's livelihood and their health."

Los Angeles County is still listed in the state's highest-risk category for COVID-19 under its four-tier economic recovery roadmap. The county is in the "purple" tier, signifying continued widespread transmission of the virus locally. Last week, the county met both of the state's criteria for advancing to the next stage, the "red" tier -- meeting the required seven-day average testing positivity rate and the number of new cases per 100,000 residents. The red tier would loosen restrictions on more businesses, allowing operations including movie theaters and churches to open at limited capacity.

Counties, however, must meet the criteria for two consecutive weeks before officially moving up in the state's chart. The state updates the chart every Tuesday, and the latest update showed that Los Angeles County's average rate of new cases per 100,000 residents exceeds the state's threshold to move into the red Tier 2.

In raw numbers, the county also did not meet the state's threshold the previous week, but the state adjusts the case rate based on the amount of testing being done locally. That adjustment brought into red-tier territory last week, but failed to do so this week.

The state's Health and Human Services director, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said Tuesday he is hopeful that Los Angeles County will soon advance to the next tier.

"Many large counties have been able to move from purple into red," Ghaly said. "We've seen that already. L.A. County met the threshold for red for one week. They missed it this week, and they may be on the road to meeting it again very soon."

The county on Monday announced one new coronavirus-related death and 663 newly confirmed cases. Ferrer noted that Monday figures are typically lower due to a lag in reporting from over the weekend. Long Beach health officials reported 45 new coronavirus cases Monday, while Pasadena added one.

The new death increased the countywide death toll since the start of the pandemic to 6,515.

The number of cases confirmed countywide since the pandemic began stood at 268,501 as of Monday. A total of 663 people were hospitalized in the county, excluding Long Beach and Pasadena, continuing a weeks-long downward trend.