Some pediatricians say kids can return to schools without all teachers vaccinated. LAUSD and UTLA disagree

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski and Rosalie Atkinson

LA Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) both say schools can’t reopen until teachers are vaccinated. But the Centers for Disease Control and a group of local pediatricians disagree. 

In a press release on Wednesday, the regional Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said schools should open immediately. They say the harm of keeping kids at home longer outweighs the risks. 

KCRW talks about this with LAUSD board member Jackie Goldberg, plus Dr. Alice Kuo, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Kuo is also Chief of Medicine-Pediatrics at UCLA.

KCRW: What timeline is the district looking at for getting kids back in physical classrooms? Is it possible they’ll be back this semester?

Jackie Goldberg: “Sure, it's possible if the infection rate continues to go down. … We were told in November that when we were at 8%, that was too high to go back. But now we're at 11%. We're told it's okay to go back. He [Gov. Newsom] tells CTA [California Teachers Association] the day before he goes to the administrator's hearing that we're not going to force anybody to go back until everybody's vaccinated that will be working with kids. And then the next day, he says something different. 

… We've been whiplashed. Every time we feel ready to do something, we get told that the standards have changed. And that's really part of the problem. 

Also, we're looking at data from folks who are not actually looking at the data in Los Angeles, including, I'm sorry to say, the pediatricians. 

We're still getting 6000-7000 cases a day. We're still getting an infection rate of 11%. We had 205 deaths yesterday. And 220 for the day before yesterday. 

We will not put people at risk. Now everybody says, ‘Oh, it's okay. Kids, you know, kids don't spread it.’ Well I got news for you. We've been the only district in California that is doing regular testing of children and adults in our district. And the highest rate of infection has been in the children, about a 30% infection rate of those we've tested, where there's only been a 10% infection rate in the adults. 

Do we want to go back to school? Yes. Are we ready? Yes. Are the teachers union holding this up? No, there are no bargaining units holding up our going back. 

We are not going back because the board and the superintendent have decided that science will be the issue. And that as long as we have such an outrageously high infection rate in our communities, particularly our communities of color, where of all the children who have had serious illness and death, 78% of the children who died are kids of color.”

Dr. Kuo, what’s your response to Jackie saying the infection rate is too high, especially among kids, to open schools? 

Dr. Alice Kuo: “There's different interpretations of the data that's happening here. So when we look at the number of students that have actually returned to school campuses in LA County, it's about 90,000. Of course, none of those are in LAUSD. But we have 87 other school districts in the County of Los Angeles, in addition to the independent and religious schools. So 90,000 students through either the waiver process or their high needs are back on campuses. And 10,000 additional adults are on campuses, many of whom are actually in LAUSD. 

And in the three and a half months that students and adults were on school campuses, there were only 385 cases. So you're thinking 100,000 people, 385 cases over three and a half months, and 80 to 90% of those cases were in adult teachers or staff.

So the infection rate that is being quoted is yes, general for the county. But that is called community transmission. So there's no denying that community transmission is high in Los Angeles County because we have 10 million people. And despite repeated requests from the Department of Public Health for people to stay home, it’s difficult. And people are interacting with each other, and people [are] going to the supermarket and so on and so forth. So those data that were just reported are community transmission rates, but not the data that's happening on school campuses.

And that’s the key because in the community, we can't regulate, we can't make people quarantine, we can't make people symptom check when they enter a supermarket. However, we do that on school campuses. And so with appropriate infection control practices, the must haves, this universal masking, social distancing, hand hygiene, frequent wipe down of high-touch areas and symptom screening, schools are actually one of the best sectors in LA County to be able to identify and isolate cases and prevent outbreaks, as compared to other industries such as food industries and retail. I mean, those numbers are high, but not schools. And so I would say the infection control practices are the must-haves, anything else is a nice to have.

Jackie, what Dr. Kuo says is backed by some studies that the CDC relied on when it recommended schools reopening even without mass vaccination of teachers. So what about what she just said, especially where science has shown that there is less transmission by younger kids, and they are less apt to get ill?

Jackie Goldberg: “Yes, well, they are. But I would like you to have her name the school districts that opened. They are almost all in affluent areas with a very low percentage of kids of color. That's who they are. That's who opened. 

Everybody says, ‘Oh, go ahead and open up, we don't care if more kids of color get sick and die, or take it home to their multi-generational families and make them sick and die. We don't care if the bus driver, who is making not a terrific high salary, gets sick taking the children because the children are not symptomatic.’

I don't understand this. We have vaccines. Why in the world, if we want schools to open, aren't personnel that interact with students on the top of the list right now? … Long Beach is getting their people vaccinated.”

Is your argument more with the LA Department of Public Health that they are not prioritizing teachers? 

Jackie Goldberg: “That's also with everybody because every single week, we get a different notion of what it takes to reopen. We're told that we're purple, we can't open. Then we're told that yes, actually, you can open, but you have to have 25 or fewer cases per 100,000. We don't have that. We have four times that amount. So then they change the standard. Because if we can't meet the standard, they change the standard. 

That's not science. That's politics. Science is when we get people who are vaccinated interacting with our children, we can reopen, we have no problems. UTLA and all of our bargaining units are working daily on working out the problems. 

Everybody says, ‘Well, what are the problems?’ Okay, let me give you a problem that we're trying to work out. You got six classes with your middle school kids. Does the teacher move? Or do the students move? Which is safer? We're not sure yet. Do you move them in one direction? Do you move them at different times during the different days? Do you need a different nell schedule for each school? Do you need to have a decision as to whether the teacher … is teaching both to the online kids and to the kids that are in the classroom? Or both? And if they're doing both, how do they interact with the kids who are online? These are the issues we're discussing. 

We're not discussing whether they want to go back to work. Everybody wants to go back to meeting kids.”

Dr. Kuo, what effects are you seeing in kids not being in school? 

Dr. Alice Kuo: “Obviously, we've been saying that the impact on children have been detrimental the longer they stay away from school. But I will say to sort of clarify some of the points made earlier — LA County Department of Public Health has prioritized teachers. They are vaccinating the early care in education teachers. So preschool teachers have been working throughout this pandemic in-person the entire time. 

And again, we've had hundreds of thousands of young children in preschools, in classrooms, in person without major outbreaks.

I mean, really, when you look at the proportion of students and teachers who have been on campuses, and the number of cases has been super, super small, and the Department of Public Health is prioritizing the teachers who are actually in-person. 

And as far as the communities of color, we and the American Academy of Pediatrics care about all children. Many of our pediatricians work in communities of color. 

And I think the request that we're making is to try and figure it out. So these schools and school districts that have opened, it wasn't as if they opened on day one and knew exactly what to do. Implementing infection control measures to this level has not been done before. Everyone has to do it new, whether you're opening a school, opening a store, opening a restaurant, you have to kind of figure it out. And so it takes time. 

… I think the frustration comes by seeing schools that aren't even trying, and it doesn't mean that you have to open all of them, but focus on those communities of color, ask for help, look for best practices in places that have been able to do them successfully, and adopt them. And we, the American Academy of Pediatrics, are totally willing to help any school that wants to try to reopen.”