A COVID-19 vaccine is administered at a mobile clinic in West Long Beach. Photo by Sebastian Echeverry.

Long Beach Unified staff and teachers at elementary schools won’t return to the classroom until the end of March, after they’ve all had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated—a decision brokered by the city, district and teachers union—in spite of data showing outbreaks are rare in classroom settings.

The decision announced this week to wait to open elementary campuses comes as the city, along with other health departments across the country, is struggling to secure enough vaccine for those whom scientists have deemed most vulnerable.

At a media briefing Thursday, Mayor Robert Garcia stood by the city’s decision to set aside some of its vaccine allocation for LBUSD instructors and staff. So far 7,000 first-doses have gone to educators in Long Beach, which is about 12% of the 55,000 total first-doses that the city has administered.

“As a city, we believe that educators and others deserve the ability to be vaccinated before campuses reopen,” Garcia said Thursday, noting that the state lumps seniors, instructors and food workers in the same order of prioritization.

So far 80,000 first- and second-doses of the vaccine have been administered in Long Beach, but officials did not immediately provide a breakdown of how many people in the other eligible groups have received either one or both doses.

Garcia said “the vast majority” of vaccines have gone to those 65 and over; this is also the largest eligible group at about 53,000 residents, according to 2019 Census population estimates.

Seniors were given priority because data shows they are dying at a far higher rate than younger groups: 82% of the city’s 787 deaths from COVID-19 have been among those over 60, even though this group accounts for only about 12% of the population.

Other groups that are eligible for the vaccine include health care, public safety and food workers because they support critical infrastructure.

Garcia said Thursday that all elementary school teachers and staff would receive their first shot of vaccine by the end of the day.

LBUSD, however, employs a total of 12,000 teachers and staff who could become eligible in the coming weeks if the city expands its promise of fully vaccinated campuses beyond elementary school—even as some seniors and food sector workers struggle to get appointments.

Chris Callopy, executive director of the Teachers Association of Long Beach—which has been pushing for teachers to be vaccinated before they return—said he’s not aware of any promise the city has made to vaccinate teachers and staff in older grades, but added he’s dubious they’ll return to classrooms this year because the local case rate remain above the state-mandated benchmark to welcome back middle and high school students.

He said if teachers are mandated to return to classrooms, they should be prioritized because seniors have the option of taking other precautions, including staying home and limiting their exposure to the virus.

“Most of our seniors are able to shelter in place to the degree they can,” he said, adding that he’s mindful older adults are at higher risk.

 CDC guidance

The politically charged question of whether to vaccinate teachers before they go back to the classroom became especially heated after the Centers for Disease Control last week said teachers should be prioritized for the vaccine—but that there was a “growing body of evidence” that shows it is safe for schools to operate regardless of vaccination efforts.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer gave detailed figures on Tuesday showing there have been very few outbreaks among nearly 200 schools that have been operating over the past six months—even during the spike in cases over the winter months.

Los Angeles County is waiting until March 1 to begin vaccinating teachers, though Ferrer said that March “would be a tough month” because so many residents will soon be eligible amid meager supplies of the vaccine.

Though politicians at the national level have been cagey about weighing in on the teacher vaccination issue—members of the Biden Administration would not respond after being asked repeatedly this week whether teachers should move ahead of other groups—Garcia, a former educator himself, was direct on Thursday.

The city, he said, made the decision weeks ago that if teachers were asked to return, they would get the vaccine.

The decision over whether and when elementary schools would reopen came this week after California health officials announced that Los Angeles County had met the case rate standard deemed safe to allow younger kids to return to in-person education.

On Wednesday, the district announced during a Board of Education meeting that grades K-5 would reopen on March 29, with parents having the option to keep their kids at home in virtual settings.

The LBUSD also announced a targeted reopening date of April 20 for middle schools, and a reopening for high schools on April 19 for seniors and April 26 for grades 9 through 11.

The county, however, must first lower its case rate to no more than 7 per 100,000 resident for that to happen. As of this week, it is 20.

Melissa Evans is the Chief Executive Officer of the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal. Reach her at [email protected], @melissaevansLBP or 562-512-6354.