Gov. Gavin Newsom said he believes schools can begin to reopen even if all teachers are not yet vaccinated against COVID-19, provided that proper safety measures and supports are in place — although some teachers unions, including United Teachers Los Angeles, have said vaccinations should be a prerequisite to resuming in-person instruction.
“We can safely reopen schools as we process a prioritization to our teachers of vaccinations,” Newsom said Wednesday.
“I’d love to have everybody in the state vaccinated that chooses to be vaccinated,” he said during a briefing held to announce the future opening of a new community vaccination center at the Oakland Coliseum. “Not only would I like to prioritize teachers, we are prioritizing teachers.”
Newsom’s comments came the same day that Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said schools can safely reopen even if all teachers are not vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I … want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen, and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” Walensky said at a briefing of the White House COVID-19 response team Wednesday. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”
Jeff Zients, coordinator of President Biden’s COVID-19 task force, said Wednesday that the president wants schools to reopen and to stay open.
“And that means that every school has the equipment and the resources to open safely, not just private schools or schools in wealthy areas, but all schools,” Zients said.
A commentary by CDC researchers published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. last month concluded that a path exists to “return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery,” but actions that need to be taken include “steps to reduce community transmission and limiting school-related activities such as indoor sports practice or competition that could increase transmission risk.”
There‘s little evidence that on-campus instruction has contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission, the researchers wrote. But there have been some notable exceptions.
In Israel, for instance, two infected students triggered a large outbreak within two weeks of their high school’s reopening in May. That outbreak was blamed in part on crowded classrooms and insufficient physical distancing. Also, because of hot weather, student were exempted from using face masks and air conditioners recycled interior air in closed rooms.
But overall, the CDC team wrote, most evidence “has been reassuring” because the kind of rapid spread seen in nursing homes and crowded workplaces has not been reported in schools. “Preventing transmission in school settings will require addressing and reducing levels of transmission in the surrounding communities through policies to interrupt transmission (e.g., restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants),” the researchers wrote.
A number of counties in California are finally seeing new daily coronavirus case rates fall to levels low enough — less than 25 new infections a day per 100,000 residents — that would allow more elementary schools to open if school operators chose to do so. But new daily coronavirus case rates would have to fall to a lower level of less than 7 a day per 100,000 residents to allow middle and high schools to reopen.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles County’s adjusted daily new case rate was 38.7 per 100,000, the state Department of Public Health reported. L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has suggested that it could be a matter of weeks before the threshold to allow districts to more fully reopen elementary schools is reached.
California officials are now only allowing healthcare workers, people living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities and seniors age 65 and over access to the vaccine. Teachers and educators are in the next group set to receive the vaccine, but there is no formal timeline for when they will begin to be inoculated.
When asked about the CDC director’s latest comments, Newsom said he subscribes “to the Biden administration’s point of view, reinforced again today in their press conference, that we can safely reopen schools with [an] appropriate level of support.” Doing so, he added, also will require “accountability in terms of enforcing the rules of the road.”
United Teachers Los Angeles and other teachers unions have balked at resuming in-person instruction before teachers are inoculated. L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner has said it is critical that health officials specifically target school employees for vaccination while campuses are closed so that this impediment to reopening is removed.
“Vaccinating school staff will help get school classrooms opened sooner,” Beutner said this week.
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.