Amidst falling COVID-19 cases and deaths, perspectives on school reopening differ in NELA

A bird flies above a locked gate at Eagle Rock High School. Saturday Feb. 21, 2021. Angela Guglielmino/The Occidental.

As rates of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in LA county continue to fall and vaccination efforts ramp up statewide, debate over whether or not conditions are safe enough for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students, teachers and staff to return to in-person learning this spring is growing. Citing concerns from working parents in NELA, CD-1 Councilmember Gil Cedillo seconded a Feb. 9 City Council motion to sue LAUSD to push for reopening of campuses, according to CD-1 spokesperson Conrado TerrazasCross. 

TerrazasCross said Cedillo understands the difficulty and concerns that NELA parents have with balancing staying at home, taking care of kids and paying rent, which he believes reopening schools would help alleviate.

“We seconded the motion because we believe that debate and sharing of ideas are important,” TerrazasCross said via email. “Many of our kids don’t have computers or share a computer. They live in overcrowded conditions, in a multigenerational household with several people in a small apartment. It is critical that schools be open so kids can get some relief. They need to be accommodated.”

Political pressure from LA City Council prompted chapter leaders of the LA teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), to vote Feb. 19 to refuse a return to any in-person or hybrid learning models. According to a statement from UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz, a vote of approval is conditional on LA County leaving the state’s purple tier for infection, ensuring the full vaccination of all staff or at least in the process of vaccination, and implementing required safety conditions including physical distancing, PPE and ventilation.

Eagle Rock High School’s field behind a fence. Saturday Feb. 21, 2021. Angela Guglielmino/The Occidental.

LA County officially met California’s threshold for reopening elementary schools Feb. 16 after the daily case rate fell below 25 per 100,000 residents within the county for five consecutive days. 

Despite meeting virus thresholds for partial reopening, Mishna Erana Hernandez, a science teacher at Eagle Rock High School, said safety considerations and logistics like physical distancing would make a return to campus in the near future improbable without adequate planning.

“I have classes with 46 students. It is a struggle fitting all of them in my current [virtual] classroom,” Hernandez said. “Now imagine actually having to provide the physical distance among all of them.” 

Wary of a rushed reopening, NELA’s LAUSD Board member Jackie Goldberg called the City Council motion suing LAUSD ridiculous, but was empathetic to the widespread impatience with school reopening she felt it was reflective of. 

“I don’t blame them. I’m impatient too. I’m tired of sitting in this little tiny room in my house, trying to do all of my work,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said the virus and vaccine rollout should dictate when and how students return to campus throughout LA and that district officials have been hard at work securing the resources and creating the conditions for a return to campus in the meantime.

“We’ve changed every single filter in every single school fan and HVAC to the equivalent of an N95 mask. We’ve moved desks and social distanced them. We bought PPE for 100 percent of school employees that will be on campus. We’ve tested more than 50,000 people to find out whether they are healthy or safe,” Goldberg said. 

The district has also been working with its labor partners at ULTA to address teacher concerns and finalize the logistics of how a return to in-person instruction could function, according to Goldberg. 

“People are trying to make it sound like we’re at each other’s throats and nothing could be further from the truth. We’re problem-solving together and we’ll come to an agreement,” Goldberg said. “I don’t think that there will be any lack of agreement that will keep us from reopening the schools, it will be the issues having to do with health.” 

Goldberg added that any in-person return would likely rely on a hybrid model with student attendance staggered until at least 80% of county residents are vaccinated. Approximately 12 percent of county residents had been vaccinated as of Feb. 20. 

Dr. Maria Grace Martinez, Dean of Franklin High School in Highland Park, said her campus in Highland Park would not be ready to safely return students this year, even in a hybrid system of virtual and in-person learning. 

“You’re also asking students to get used to another model, another schedule and another change,” Hernandez said. “I think that they’ve been through enough change, so let’s finish up this year in the way that we are used to now.”

Hernandez said she sees her students experiencing the challenges of caring for sick family members with some enduring grief right now over the passing of loved ones, something that a return to school does little to help.

“There can’t be any learning really taking place unless you have some very basic emotional needs being met,” Hernandez said. “Our council members trying this very aggressive move seems a little hostile in my opinion. What could have helped better is to talk about how we can support students in the next three or so months we have left.”

A multitude of colorful strings hang from the fence outside of Eagle Rock High School. Saturday Feb. 21, 2021. Angela Guglielmino/The Occidental.

Hernandez said all she and many teachers are asking for is compassion and flexibility for their students.

“Stop putting so much emphasis on lost instructional time and low test scores, because 10 years from now no one is going to say, ‘Remember that year during the pandemic where you got this bad score,'” Hernandez said. “I want people to realize, especially people that are for reopening, that students need a break.”