Los Angeles Pediatricians And Schools Are At Odds Regarding School Opening

Public school teachers state they will not return to in-person school until they are all able to be vaccinated against Covid-19; pediatricians state that all public schools must open for in-person learning immediately. The current issue of returning to in-person school for all students is a source of heated debate between those who care for children’s health and those who care for children’s education. Besides parents and caregivers, few people care more about the well-being of children than pediatricians and educators. But at this time, the two have forged a sharp divide between what’s best and safest for children and their teachers.

On February 3, 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), California Chapter 2, representing several Southern California counties, including Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Ventura, issued a press release stating the dire need to return students and teachers to the classroom immediately. In it, they reference a recent report published in JAMA, which stated that employing mitigating measures such as removal of indoor sports, de-densifying classrooms, masking all who are present, physical distancing, increased hygiene, using improved air ventilation, and screening those on campus substantially reduced the likelihood of Covid-19 outbreaks from schools.

The release includes results of a survey issued to teachers, ten months into the pandemic. The 500 teachers surveyed described how the “low levels of student attendance and engagement are alarming and a lack of access is still creating barriers, with our youngest and more vulnerable populations most impacted.”

The impact on students of all ages, as well as their families, includes crossover into so many areas such as mental health, social growth, and physical well-being. The press release notes that “The emotional and mental impacts on children related to social isolation, anxiety, lack of structure, and visual learning fatigue are well-documented.” Dr. Alice Kuo, AAP Chapter 2 President and Professor and Chief of Medicine-Pediatrics at UCLA, stated “Schools should open immediately…We are causing undue harm to millions of children by keeping schools closed for this long.” In addition, Dr. Kuo noted that buses would be available for students who need them, and efforts would be made for social distancing. Masks would be required at all times, and adults are already getting routine testing for Covid-19 infections.

But at a time when Los Angeles has just barely dug out of a massive post-winter holiday spike in Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, seeing up to 20,000 new cases per day and having no available ICU beds in the region until just a few weeks ago, teachers and leaders of the teachers’ union have some serious concerns about returning to in-person learning. On February 5, 2021, UTLA President Ms. Cecily Myart-Cruz issued a statement in response to the recent push to open schools. In it, she notes how Covid-19 infection rates are six times higher than they were in November 2020, when school opening was barely being considered. She also states that “Saying the temporary trauma from Crisis Distance Learning is greater than the illness and death of family members minimizes the reality that Covid-19 disproportionately impacts poor, Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander families in Los Angeles.”

In a tweet on February 4, UTLA stated that even though the buildings are closed, teachers are working hard remotely to educate thousands of children:

Ms. Myart-Cruz concludes: “Vaccines for school educators and staff, in addition to mitigation strategies, such as…physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, and low community transmission rates, are a part of the solution to reopen schools safely — and that is the path we continue to pursue. That is the path based on science and the path that puts the health and safety of our school staff, our students, and their families before politics.”

Los Angeles County, which has 10 million residents, has struggled with vaccine receipt and allocation. To date, only healthcare workers and individuals over age 65 years have had the option to sign up to receive a vaccine. This week, at the five mega-PODS (point-of-dispensing sites), only second doses of the currently available two-dose vaccine regimens will be offered. The current shortage of Covid-19 vaccines precludes the option to bring in new vaccine recipients until state and county vaccine supplies improve. It remains unclear when Los Angeles County will begin vaccine distribution to Tier 2 of Phase 1B, which would include those who work in education, childcare, emergency services, and food and agriculture. Until then, Los Angeles County teachers, as well as most adults unless they are over age 65 years, will continue to wait for the vaccine. As for continuing with remote education versus opening schools for in-person learning, that issue has yet to be resolved.

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