L.A. County elementary schools can return to in-person classes — if they decide to

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Los Angeles County has met the state’s threshold for reopening schools, health officials said Tuesday, but districts will handle that process and issues like teacher vaccination individually.

For five consecutive days, the county has seen an adjusted case rate of less than 25 new cases per 400,000 people — meeting California requirement to allow in-person classes for students in grades K-6 for the first time, officials said. Older students will be allowed to return to campus once the county reduces case rates even further.

While schools can open as early as this week, districts across the county are working on different timelines.

Campuses within the huge L.A. Unified School District are among those not expected to reopen immediately. The nation’s second-largest school district remains in negotiations with union officials over the vaccination of teachers, the Los Angeles Times has reported.

Meanwhile, smaller school districts around the San Fernando Valley are planning to go forward with a return to on-campus instruction. Las Virgenes Unified School District Superintendent Dan Stepenosky told Los Angeles Daily News the district was moving “full steam ahead.”

“We’ve very excited,” Stepenosky told the Daily News. “We had been anticipating this so, we shared with our parents last week that we’ll be opening fourth and fifth grades on Monday, March 1.”

He told the newspaper those students have not been attending in-person classes for a year now.

Over the last few weeks, L.A. County has seen a “steadily declining” case rate, which has remained lower since spiking last month, L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.

Some local city officials have been adamant that L.A. Unified schools should return to on-site learning even if teachers aren’t vaccinated; one councilman even threatened a lawsuit. On Monday, County Supervisor Janice Hahn said the fact so many have already been vaccinated in L.A. so far — at least 1 million countywide — shows the region is ready for welcoming students back to campus.

“I feel like we’ve turned a corner,” Hahn said.

Beyond state approval, school districts must also get signed off by the Department of Public Health to bring back in-person classes. Ferrer said 12 districts have already submitted their safety plans for reopening and have been approved by the county, including LAUSD.

State and federal health guidelines do not require vaccinating teachers as a requirement for in-person instruction. But the president of the union encompassing most of L.A. Unified’s teachers has said vaccinating them before they return to the classroom is a must.

LAUSD has enhanced sanitization measures and followed other guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, and the district has even established a comprehensive school-based COVID-19 testing program, according to LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner.

“Los Angeles Unified has done more than any school district in the nation to prepare schools to welcome students back to in-person classes,” the superintendent said Feb. 8.

Ferrer said schools will have to commit to not just measures like improved cleaning protocols and social distancing practices but also reporting of outbreaks to the county’s health department.

“Schools are also required to immediately report to Public Health clusters of three or more positive cases of COVID-19 that have occurred within 14 days of one another,” Ferrer said.

On March 1, teachers will be among the essential workers, from grocery store employees to law enforcement personnel, eligible to receive the vaccine.

But Ferrer said the supply of vaccinations will likely determine how quickly teachers can get inoculated, and therefore, when some campuses will reopen. Last week, vaccine shortages in L.A. caused the massive site at Dodger Stadium to temporarily close.

On Tuesday, county health officials reported another 1,260 cases of the coronavirus and an additional 120 deaths. The death rate has fallen significantly since peaking in early January.

The daily test positivity rate continues to decline since also reaching its highest point in January. On Monday, health officials reported the positivity rate was 5.2% — marking a 64% decline from 14.3% on Jan. 15. The rate of hospitalizations has also dropped considerably since beginning of this year.

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