LOS ANGELES - During a press briefing Wednesday, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti touched on the challenges surrounding distance learning and the need to reopen schools for students.
"I think our highest priority has to be our children. We've got cardrooms open and our schools not. Let's get our priorities straight, and don't get me wrong, jobs are important too but our children have been suffering and our children that already suffer the most are suffering the most on top of it. They are literally losing a year of their education and in many ways, maybe sending them on a pathway where they will never be able to recover so I hope all stakeholders, our districts, our federal government, our local governments, our teachers, our school employees are all unified in let's get schools open as quickly as we can and safely as we can," he said.
Garcetti said teachers and school workers should be prioritized for vaccinations.
"One of the most difficult things about this is not knowing what the vaccine supply is going to be, but you can feather in our teachers, you can feather in our school workers and get that done even one grade at a time, and I hope we will all feel that urgency for our children. I believe that we should be putting teachers and school workers at the front of the line. They are one of the most critical along with our transportation workers and food workers," he said.
LAUSD Superintendent, Austin Beutner, said there are no current plans to reopen schools for in-person learning anytime soon. He also said teachers need to be vaccinated before schools can reopen. UTLA, the union representing teachers at LAUSD, supports that decision too.
FOX 11 asked Garcetti if he would intervene and allow schools to reopen.
"I am available to help anybody. I intervened when the union went on strike and was very happy from the same space I am right now to work together with Superintendent Beutner, the Board, and the union," he said.
Venus Burnley, a UTLA member, and 5th grade teacher at Limerick Elementary, is wary about returning to the classroom.
"My level of anxiety, I have a hard time finding words to explain how I feel. On the one hand, I would love to meet my students in person. I have not met my students in person. I have only seen them on a screen on my computer, but on the other hand, I’m petrified of going back. I worry often, will I be safe? Will the students be safe? What are the protocols? How is it going to be played out," questioned Burnley.
UTLA released a statement:
LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the nation and the second-largest employer in LA County. Vaccines for school educators and staff, in addition to mitigation measures and low community transmission rates, are a part of the solution to reopen schools safely.
The Feb. 3 statement by the Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, calling for an immediate reopening of schools, leaves out a key caution of the Journal of American Medical Association study that it cites, which has been selectively quoted there and in other places, which is: "Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies to interrupt transmission (eg, restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants)."
When pediatricians are pitted against educators, this conveniently lets politicians off the hook for their failure to enact policies that would have controlled the spread of this virus. Other countries make it clear: in the face of highly transmissible and potentially deadlier variants, strict lockdowns with financial support that allow people to stay safe at home are the way forward, especially with highly effective vaccines for millions right around the corner.
No schools in California should reopen in a county that is in the purple tier. Essential workers who are putting their lives at risk should also be prioritized for the vaccine rollout.
The claims that transmission does not occur in schools are often based on studies that share the same flaw – incomplete contact tracing due to a lack of surveillance testing of often asymptomatic students. Saying no cases were found when systematic testing is not happening, particularly when community spread is high, is not a foundation on which to base a widespread return to in-person instruction.
The authors of the JAMA study conclude the same things that educators at UTLA have long been advocating: when community infection rates are low and when mitigation measures are faithfully in place, we have a path to in-person instruction. Unfortunately, politicians have instead let the virus spread uncontrollably and have not provided the funding and enforcement for multi-layered mitigation.
"Saying the temporary trauma from Crisis Distance Learning is greater than the illness and death of family members conveniently minimizes the reality that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts poor, Black, and Latino families in Los Angeles," said UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz. "Because it is the working class families of LA who suffer the most, our elected county and state officials have made the decision to let this disease run rampant."
"Although thankfully, serious illness and death among children are rare, 78% of the children who have died in the US are children of color," Myart-Cruz said. "I believe if this disease was disproportionately killing white children, parents and grandparents, the response to COVID-19 from our politicians would have looked very different."