Staff shortages, fear and confusion: Los Angeles schools grapple with Covid chaos

For students across the US, the return from winter break has been marked by chaos and confusion as the Omicron variant has exacerbated staff shortages and sparked fierce debates about how to reopen classrooms safely.

In Chicago, classes resumed and then were canceled abruptly last week as the teachers’ union and school district failed to agree on safety protocols, while teachers in San Francisco and other Bay Area schools staged a “sickout” to demand more N95 face masks, testing and paid sick leave for those who contract the coronavirus.

Vir Los Angeles Unified – the second largest public school system in the US – classes are scheduled to resume on Tuesday, and educators, studente, and parents alike are bracing for another winter of anxious uncertainty.

Schools here are grappling with coronavirus conundrums that institutions across the country are facing – but on a huge scale. Vaccination rates continue to lag among children, and tests are in short supply. And all this comes as rates of Covid surge in the surrounding community, with about one in every five coronavirus tests in Los Angeles coming back positive.

In a district where many students come from low-income families and more than 80% of students qualify for a free lunch under federal guidelines, “there are no real easy answers right now” on how to balance children’s educational needs and health, said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at the University of Kalifornië, Los Angeles.

With coronavirus transmission rates in LA exceeding levels seen during the winter of 2020-21, Los Angeles Unified announced last week that all students and staff returning to campus this week must show a negative Covid-19 test. New rules from LA county also require employees at public and private schools to wear medical-grade masks on campus, including outdoors in crowded spaces. Administrators and health officials expect that the Omicron variant is likely to send exposed children and teachers back home and into quarantine.

But after becoming one of the first large districts in the US to adopt a strict vaccine mandate for students 12 and older for this coming semester, school officials decided to delay enforcement until next fall – largely because tens of thousands of students remain unvaccinated.

Marisol Rosales, a mother of four school-aged children in Los Angeles, said she has had trouble keeping up with the shifting rules and requirements for each of her kids’ campuses. “I’ve been calling all day to find out more about the guidelines, and where I need to get my kids tested, and by which day," sy het gese. She and her husband are also mentally preparing to take time off work or find last-minute childcare if schools shut down again, which will mean navigating the logistics of finding space for their four kids to attend online classes from their tight, one-bedroom home. “There’s just a lot to worry about right now," sy het gese.

While Los Angeles Unified is reopening this week, other school systems in the LA area opened during the first week of January, many with teachers and staff missing. The Santa Ana Unified school district in southern California was missing about 10% of its teachers, met 324 employees either sick or in quarantine. Another local district, in San Gabriel, closed a middle school and a high school following outbreaks but opted to keep other campuses open.

LA Unified is bracing for similar issues, while also seeking to fill 600 teacher vacancies after the district saw a spate of resignations and retirements during the pandemic. “Teaching is already a stressful job. Doing so when I’m fearing for my life and for students’ lives and the lives of their families is just on a different level,” said Joanne Yi, an ethnic studies and geography teacher at Augustus Hawkins in South Los Angeles.

Yi said she was dreading returning to class and fretting about whether she might contract a breakthrough infection, despite being vaccinated, or worse – pass on the infection to a student. Her classes largely consist of low-income students of color, many of whom are recent immigrants, and many of whom are undocumented. Their parents often work in healthcare, food service or other industries – where they may face high risks of contracting Covid-19. And many students live in multigenerational homes with parents and grandparents and may lack access to affordable healthcare.

“The classroom can easily become ground zero for a mass infection in the community,” Yi said. She and other local teachers said they would feel safer if the state or local government developed benchmarks or guidelines to indicate when schools should close – similar to the color-coded system that California instituted last year. “Right now we’re consistent in our lack of consistency," sy het gese.

The inconsistency can wear on students, as well. “I think the number one emotion I feel is just frustrated,” said Favour Akingbemi, 17, a senior at Washington Preparatory high school in South LA. Facing yet another semester of unpredictability and the prospect of trying to focus on online classes alongside three of her siblings at home, Akingbemi said she felt burned out.

Nearly three of Akingbemi’s four high school years have been defined by the pandemic. Over the past year, she has had to convince her own parents, as well as a number of classmates, to get vaccinated, refuting the misinformation they are bombarded with on WhatsApp and social media. “It’s upsetting that we’re still stuck in this pandemic," sy het gese.

Terwyl ongeveer 86% of LA Unified students 12 and older have been vaccinated, vaccine rates are lagging among students five to 11 jaar oud, who became eligible for Covid-19 vaccines in the fall. Across Los Angeles county, enigste 15.7% of children aged five to 11 are fully vaccinated.

For Rosales, concerns that Covid-19 vaccines will cause long-term side-effects in her kids have outweighed worries that they could contract coronavirus at school. Both Rosales and her husband are fully vaccinated and boosted, “but I don’t think the vaccines should be mandated for little kids”, sy het gese. “I worry about the repercussions of the vaccines on their developing bodies.”

No serious safety concerns or lasting side-effects from Covid-19 vaccines were found in clinical trials among children, and public health officials and pediatricians have been assuring parents that the approved coronavirus vaccines – much like other vaccines required for children – are safe. “I tell parents, wel, it’s OK to be overwhelmed, it’s OK to have fears,” said Ilan Shapiro, the medical director of health education and wellness at AltaMed in LA, who has been conducting bilingual outreach efforts to promote the vaccine. “I try to explain to parents how I decided to get my own young kids vaccinated.”

Debates over mandating vaccines for LA Unified centered on whether it would be feasible for schools to send up to 30,000 unvaccinated students aged 12 and over back to distance learning. Officials in Portland, New York and Chicago also paused discussions of mandates this winter. With vaccination rates among Black and Latino residents lagging, a strict mandate threatens to push already vulnerable students of color into a “separate and unequal” remote schooling system, said Howard.

But public health experts say that boosting vaccine rates among children is the only surefire way to protect children and keep schools open as more infectious variants arise. That is especially true for Black and Latino students in Los Angeles, whose families have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, said Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Stanford. The county revealed last fall that unvaccinated Black and Latino residents had the highest Covid-19 rates during the last wave of infections, aangedryf deur die Delta -variant.

Although children are less likely than adults to fall seriously ill from Covid-19, amid this surge of cases, Covid-19 hospitalization rates among children are rising. Regoor die VSA, an average of 824 children are hospitalized each day with Covid-19.

“If we really want to protect these kids, we have to get them vaccinated,” Maldonado said.

State and local governments need to do more to reach out to parents, Dit sou die herstel terughou, and provide more information, in more languages, about the safety of the available Covid-19 vaccines. “Everybody’s burned out and tired and overwhelmed," sy het gese. “But I think we need to do this on behalf of kids.”

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