City vows to vaccinate teachers of younger grades as tension mounts over school reopening date

The city will provide Long Beach Unified with enough COVID-19 vaccine to inoculate pre-kindergarten through second-grade teachers by next week, the mayor said Thursday—an announcement that comes as tensions rise over when schools should reopen for in-person instruction.

The teachers union has argued that instructors shouldn’t be required to come back to the classroom until they are vaccinated, but the city—and other health jurisdictions—has limited supply of the vaccine and other priority groups who are in line to get the doses.

Mayor Robert Garcia said at a media briefing Thursday that the city would ensure that teachers of younger grades are vaccinated, starting with pre-K through second next week and third- through fifth-grades “soon after.”

“I want to give assurances that all teachers will get vaccinated,” Garcia said. “Educators know that we are here to support them.”

School officials have been eyeing a March 1 reopening date for younger grades, though officials have been mired in negotiations with the Teachers Association of Long Beach over the safety of instructors.

The school district must also wait until case rates of COVID-19 fall below 25 per 100,000 residents for at least five days. Though the city has its own health department, it is lumped in with Los Angeles County on this metric.

Los Angeles County’s state-adjusted case rate is 31.7 per 100,000 residents, down from about 38 last week. That number is updated every Tuesday.

As the region heads toward meeting the required metrics—county health officials predicted it would be a matter of weeks—Long Beach school officials have been in touch with elementary school principals to let them know they should begin preparations for reopening March 1.

However TALB said in a note to members this week that the district has not reached out to the union about this announcement.

LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou said the March 1 date has been public since it was announced Dec. 14.

“We remain in touch with our employee unions, but we don’t negotiate through news media,” he said.

The district also announced on Dec. 14 that if schools cannot reopen on March 1, the next targeted date would be April 12, following the planned LBUSD spring break. That April date seems increasingly likely to be the next step for middle schools and high schools.

However, in order to open older grades, the county and city would have to meet even stricter guidelines, including a case rate of no more than seven per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of less than 8%.

Still, the city’s falling case rate leaves open the possibility of a March return to campus for elementary school students. The district is currently surveying parents of those students to see who would select an on-campus half-day option and who would prefer to finish the school virtually. That survey is set to close Friday.

The last time the district asked parents this question in the fall, 58% of elementary parents chose some form of on-campus education for their children. Those options were more varied, however, as opposed to the half-day option currently presented, which also includes the new state requirements of weekly COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

The district said its current agreement with teachers covers the reopening of campuses once the state allows it. But that agreement was negotiated in the summer prior to several changes in state requirements, and prior to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which has so far reached a small percentage of the district’s teachers.

In a letter from TALB to the LBUSD Board of Education Wednesday evening, one of the principal complaints was that the district did not prioritize teachers who were already in the classroom or who could be returning to the classroom shortly for those limited vaccine doses.

Adding to the frustration for all parties is the drastically changed state guidelines. For TALB there’s the question of why there’s a push to reopen schools when case rates are three times what they were in the fall, when campuses were closed.

For parents, there’s the question of why the state didn’t make these adjustments sooner; Long Beach’s case rate was under 25 for most of the fall semester.

For the district, there’s the question of how to adhere to what LBUSD deputy superintendent Tiffany Brown termed the “moving goalposts” of state guidelines while also pushing to open schools for struggling students and parents, and while keeping its employee unions from reaching a boiling point of frustration.

The school board will meet next at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Staff writer Melissa Evans contributed to this report.

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