LAUSD superintendent calls potential lawsuit forcing schools to reopen a ‘political stunt’

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The superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District dismissed a potential lawsuit by the city of L.A. to force the reopening of campuses as a “political stunt” Friday.

Coronavirus infection rates across L.A. County remain among the highest in California, which is currently leading the country in death rates even as daily hospitalization rates have fallen recently. Superintendent Austin Beutner described that reality as the reason schools cannot, for now, reopen safely.

“We are ready to reopen and want nothing more than to welcome children back to classrooms safely but we cannot break state law to do so,” Beutner wrote in a statement released Friday, citing state rules barring counties with the worst rates of infection from allowing in-person school instruction.

“What we cannot control is the community spread of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles area,” he wrote.

His response comes a day after Los Angeles City Council President Pro Tempore Joe Buscaino announced he wants to sue the district to make campuses return to in-person learning. Buscaino, whose wife is an LAUSD teacher, told the Los Angeles Times he plans to bring a resolution before the council next week that could allow the city to go forth with a lawsuit.

It’s a tactic that’s already been used in San Francisco.

“This is not the path we would have preferred, but nothing matters more right now than getting our kids back in school,” Mayor London Breed wrote in a tweet Wednesday, backing the city’s lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District.

What has made Buscaino so certain L.A. campuses can reopen without putting teachers and students at risk, he said, is a recent statement of support from the Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the guidance given this week by federal health officials.

“I follow the recent direction of president Biden’s CDC director and Dr. Fauci, who stated it’s OK to reopen schools if they follow by social distancing and mask-wearing, and teachers don’t have to be 100% vaccinated to reopen the schools,” Buscaino told KTLA during a video call Friday.

But the union representing most LAUSD teachers and staff, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), has said the mass vaccination of teachers is non-negotiable. During a Facebook live Friday, UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said doing that and reducing community spread of the virus are both necessary to keep students, teachers and staff safe.

“Studies show that schools are safe if community transmission is under control, and mitigation measures are in place,” Myart-Cruz said. “That’s not the case in L.A. County.”

The county remains in the so-called purple tier of the state’s reopening plan, which is reserved for counties with the highest infection rates, and when the virus is considered “widespread.”

San Francisco County also remains in the state’s purple tier but the region has generally seen lower rates of infection than L.A. County. Local officials issued a strict, widespread lockdown earlier in the pandemic than most other parts of California.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles continues to grapple with a grim, stubbornly high death rate and a daily hospitalization rate that’s more than doubled since the first few months of the pandemic.

The realities faced in San Francisco and Los Angeles are different for inherent reasons like population density and local politics in addition to their diverging handlings of the pandemic — something Beutner mentioned in his letter Friday.

“San Francisco authorities worked together and brought the rate of infection under control and the area has for some time met the state standard for school reopening,” Beutner wrote, saying L.A. is “a national example of how government disfunction has allowed the virus to rampage out of control.”

“It was not the decision of Los Angeles Unified to reopen card rooms or indoor malls before infection rates were low enough to unlock the schoolyard gates,” Beutner wrote.

But the clashes seen between local politicians and schools administrators, and teachers in L.A. mirror the infighting happening in San Francisco, where the local teachers’ union said it was “incredibly disheartened and frustrated” by the city’s “shameful lawsuit.”

Breed told the Associated Press she wants the city to be a leader in welcoming students back to the classroom just as it’s led the way in aggressive measures to curb the spread of the virus. She cited data showing low-income students of color have suffered the most with distance learning.

“Our kids are suffering, and the inequities that existed before this pandemic have only become more severe,” Breed told the news outlet.

Like Breed, Buscaino told the Times he’s troubled by the different experiences being faced by richer and poorer students when it comes to distance learning.

But UTLA President Myart-Cruz said those concerns don’t override the more concerning realities faced by children in less privileged communities as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s just incredible saying the temporary trauma from crisis distance learning is greater than the illness and death of family members. (It) minimizes the reality that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts black, Latino, and Pacific Islander families in Los Angeles,” Myart-Cruz said.

“Because it is the working class families of L.A. who suffered the most,” she said. “Our elected county and state officials have made the decision to let this disease run rampant.”

In San Francisco, the district’s superintendent expressed a similar sense of frustration as Myart-Cruz and Superintendent Beutner.

“This isn’t helpful,” Superintendent Vincent Matthews told AP. “We’re all in this San Francisco pandemic bubble together, and turning on us is not helpful whatsoever.”

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