BUSD Taking Cautious Approach in Return to Campus

Public health officials gave Los Angeles County elementary schools the green light to reopen for students in transitional kindergarten through 6th grade due to a decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The announcement, however, doesn’t change the Burbank Unified School District’s plans of reopening schools for the majority of its students the safest way possible, which can happen only with time and planning, according to Superintendent Matt Hill.
“Just because some announcement happens and says we hit this metric, [we] reopen the next day,” Hill said during a virtual board of education meeting on Thursday. “We’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to make sure that we have plenty of time to make that transition and we’re going to work with everyone to get there. I am very optimistic we will get there, and we will get there in a thoughtful manner.”
County Supervisor Janice Hahn tweeted the news Monday evening and said that Los Angeles had reached the state’s threshold for reopening schools of 25 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people. The L.A. County Department of Public Health made an official announcement the following day, stating that the current case rate is actually 20 new cases per 100,000.
Though L.A. County remains in the restrictive purple tier — which indicates widespread infection — in accordance with the state’s blueprint for a safer economy, county officials said they were encouraged by the significant drop in cases and hospitalizations since the winter surge.
“Certainly, we benefited from everybody getting back on track to slowing the spread,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday. “These cases would not drop like this if we were continuing to see, for example, the actions that people were taking over the winter holiday.”
Ferrer added that the winter surge served as a “wake-up call” for some people “about the importance of really taking seriously the need for us to protect each other and abide by the public health practices.”
Each school must submit an application to the county that includes its COVID-19 safety protocols. Students must be in small cohorts and everyone must be wearing a mask and socially distanced. Schools will also be required to incorporate coronavirus testing into their regular operations and they must report any cluster cases — three or more new cases within 14 days — to the public health department. School sites must have sufficient ventilation and families must be given the option of keeping children in 100% distance learning.
“We obviously feel confident that if the protocols in place are adhered to all of the time, it creates a lot of safety in the school environment or we wouldn’t be recommending that schools can be reopened,” Ferrer said.
For public schools, the decision to officially reopen ultimately falls on their respective districts, but many teachers throughout the state remain hesitant on returning to campus for in-person instruction without having been given the COVID-19 vaccine.
“There’s no way to open schools without teachers and staff feeling comfortable in buildings and without parents feeling comfortable sending their children,” Ferrer said.
Burbank Teachers Association President Diana Abasta praised the district for its cautious approach and reminded the board that though COVID-19 cases are down, the threat of the virus is still very real.
“Coming back to school without our staff being vaccinated is a risk,” she said Thursday, adding that two BUSD students tested positive recently. “We must continue to proceed with caution, and even though not everyone believes there is a risk, I don’t think we could put a price on life.”
BUSD took one step toward bringing small cohorts of high-need students back to campus by reaching an agreement with its classified employees, and it is working on an agreement with educators.
“We know that this pandemic is not over, but it is improving, so there’s going to be more and more opportunities to get students on campus,” Hill said. “We’re continuing to lay that road map to do that, but we’re not going to do it in a manner where it’s a yo-yo, we’re going to say we’re coming back, we’re not coming back or we’re going to completely upend our instructional model and have lots of disruptions as we close out this school year. We want to do it in a way where we build momentum, we have more and more students on campus, bringing everyone safe and we’re moving forward, not back and forth.”
Board member Steve Ferguson said it was important for everyone to be on the right page because “we have real challenges, and kids are slipping through the cracks in some situations.”
“We have to provide for them,” he added. “We can’t do that alone. We need partners, and we need to figure out a model that’s going to work for those kids.”
The inoculation of teachers would certainly accelerate the district’s reopening plans but supplies of the vaccine remain very low. Officials said the county expected to go into its next distribution phase on March 1, and the next eligible group included educators, child care, law enforcement, emergency response, agricultural workers and front-line essential workers.
Due to the current scarcity of the vaccine, Ferrer wouldn’t commit to a timeline of when all educators would be vaccinated and said “it will take us awhile.”
State officials are also working to return young learners to campus as soon as possible. California lawmakers agreed on a $6.5 billion proposal on Thursday that would provide additional funding and incentives to districts that reopen elementary schools by April 15.
Gov. Gavin Newsom criticized the proposal but said it “represents a step in the right direction.”
“It doesn’t go far enough or fast enough,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to building on the growing momentum to get our schools open and continuing discussions with the Legislature to get our kids back in school as safely as possible.”