COVID is spiking among kids in some LA areas. How that might affect the reopening of schools

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

LAUSD officials are pushing back on a state plan to get some kids into classrooms again. Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled his $90 billion plan toward the end of last year. 

But LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said today it doesn’t go far enough, given COVID’s dire situation in LA: “The governor’s plan does not address the disproportionate impact the virus is having on low-income communities of color. It leaves the definition of a safe school environment and the standard for reopening classrooms up to the individual discretion of 1037 school districts across the state, creating a patchwork of safety standards in the face of a statewide health crisis.”

One in every three students tested positive for the virus in Maywood, Bell, and Cudahy neighborhoods during the week of December 14, LA Times education reporter Howard Blume tells KCRW. These were asymptomatic students who physically came onto campus by appointment. 

The Maywood, Bell, and Cudahy area has a median income of $37,000 per year and a 32% student coronavirus positivity rate. In contrast, Venice’s median income is $73,000 per year and the positivity rate is 4.3%.  

“The virus is having a disproportionate impact on low-income communities. And we also know that those are the same communities that have more difficulty with online education because of internet access. Even if they get a hotspot from the district, that hotspot is not likely to work as well in a low-income community,” says Blume. “So these are the people who really need to be back in schools, but it's going to be more dangerous. 

He adds, “We've also seen that the schools in higher income areas, the school districts are more likely to open for services to students than those school districts that serve greater numbers of low-income students.” 

And when students test positive, it’s probable that their family members are testing positive too. 

Blume says there’s no immediate indication of LAUSD reopening schools in the near future. 

“There are districts that are pretty much out for the year already. There are other districts that say, ‘We're going back, we’re going to do as much as we can as soon as we're allowed to.’ … But some of the counties around us [LA] were allowed to open their schools. And if you reopen your schools before your county fell back into the worst tier, those schools can remain open and pretty much have been remaining open. So there is that very mixed picture of what's open and what's not. But as far as our unified, there's no immediate indication that schools reopen anytime soon."

Funding for school reopenings 

Blume says Gov. Newsom’s entire education budget is $90 billion, and the most important piece of his “Safe Schools for All” plan is $2 billion to reopen schools as soon as possible. Applications can be submitted as soon as February 1. 

“If you can't open your schools, like LA Unified, you can still reserve your money by getting in a plan to open schools. But this plan doesn't include agreement apparently from … both your teaching and your non-teaching unions. So whether a place like LA Unified can get that kind of agreement and reserve its money is open to question.” 

The federal government is giving a lot of money to low-income districts to reopen schools. LA Unified is getting about $1.2 billion from the coronavirus funding package that was approved in late December, says Blume. 

“It's a very mixed picture of who's getting money and for what. But Beutner sees part of his job as advocating for as much money as he can get because he thinks he's going to need it when it comes to addressing learning loss.”

Vaccinations for teachers 

Blume says teachers could get vaccinated in February or March, but there are two limiting factors: the number of vaccines available and the distribution system. 

He says schools might restart when teachers are vaccinated. But there’s also a plan to reopen based on testing, which unions might oppose. “They might say, ‘We are so close to getting a vaccine, why not just wait until there's a vaccine?’”

Blume adds a cautionary note: Vaccine trials for children are getting underway now, so it may be a while before there’s data showing vaccines are safe for these kids.