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Claremont Courier - A Local Nonprofit Newsroom

CUSD must overcome obstacles before elementary schools reopen

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Los Angeles County’s announcement Monday that elementary schools can reopen to in-person instruction had parents and students reacting strongly—both in support and opposition.

And while it’s welcome news for many, the truth is Claremont schools will likely not open for a few more weeks.

“As soon as all the pieces fall into place we’re hoping to announce a [projected opening] date for grades TK through sixth,” said interim Claremont Unified School District Superintendent Julie Olesniewicz.

Nobody interviewed for this story would hazard a guess for an estimated reopening date. But based on what remains to be accomplished, it appears to be at the very least a few weeks off.

Ms. Olesniewicz reiterated families and students would be given at least 14 days’ notice in advance of an estimated opening date.

Among the pressing items that will need to be completed prior to opening are the negotiations on   memoranda of understanding (MOU) with the district’s two unions, the Claremont Faculty Association (CFA) and Claremont Chapter 200 of the California School Employees Association (CSEA). The new MOUs are essentially change orders to the unions’ previously negotiated working conditions, which have been rendered all but moot by the pandemic.

Both MOUs will likely include language requiring their members have access to vaccinations prior to returning to work. Nobody involved with the negotiations would say whether access to vaccinations is a deal-breaker, but all said they support the push for the unions’ membership to have access prior to returning to work.

The MOU negotiations are also focusing on safety concerns. Among them are reassurances the district has ample inventory of PPE, proper signage in place at school sites, and that air purifiers in place and operational. Also being solidified are physical distancing concerns such as how desks will be spaced, as well as student entry and exit points and safe pickup and drop-off spots, among many other items.

Another new feature when classes resume will be all arriving students will have daily temperature screens and be required to answer verification questions much like those we’re all asked at doctor’s offices (“Have you or anyone you have been in contact with been exposed to COVID?” etc.), said CUSD Assistant Superintendent, Human Resources, Kevin Ward.

“The MOUs we’re hoping [to complete negotiations] within a few weeks,” Mr. Ward said. “Things can change, but that is my projection based on where we’re at. It just depends on when we come to an agreement. It’s not something we can force.”

The district will submit a general safety plan to L.A. County in a few days, Mr. Ward said, which is another prerequisite for reopening.

CUSD has been working on reopening plans for months, but the recent push began after adjusted case rates—the average number of daily new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents—began falling rapidly about a month ago. To reopen elementary schools, county guidelines mandated it had to show five consecutive days of an adjusted case rate of less than 25. It hit that milestone on Monday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began last March. California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy website reported L.A. County’s adjusted case rate at 20 as of Wednesday.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to Claremont elementary schools reopening is Los Angeles County’s phased system of COVID vaccination delivery. As of press time, it remained in Phase 1A, and educators and school employees are not eligible for the vaccine until the county moves to Phase 1B.

“Although we’re not mandating it, we’re highly recommending it,” said Mr. Ward about the vaccine. “Both associations have stated the importance of having staff vaccinated or having a vaccine available to their staff, and that’s an important thing.”

“I think teachers having access to the vaccine is the safest way for schools to reopen, besides all of the other expectations about ventilation and all of those things,” echoed Claremont Faculty Association President Kara Evans. “It is a piece of opening schools safely that I think is really important.”

Amy Weiler, the CSEA president who also works in the office at El Roble Intermediate School, said she too felt it was important a vaccine be available. “Yes. That’s definitely my opinion on that. I want everybody to have the opportunity to feel safe to return.”

Further complicating things is the frustrating reality that some CUSD employees who live in neighboring San Bernardino County, which has its own phased system, have already received the COVID vaccine.

Another wrinkle is some Phase 1B residents, including educators, have been able to secure vaccines at “pop-up” sites at pharmacies and clinics within L.A. County, as the state’s vaccine allocation guidelines state they can actually receive it “as supplies allow.” Everyone we spoke to for this story agreed this inconsistent messaging from the county has only served to fuel frustration among educators and school employees.

Asked whether teachers and school employees having access to a COVID vaccine prior to returning to classrooms is a deal breaker, Ms. Evans said, “That’s all part of what we’re negotiating right now so I can’t really say. Negotiation involves give and take on both parts. We haven’t signed anything. But I would say both parties agree that that’s an important piece of schools reopening.”

Confused? Understandable. But this dizzying set of obstacles isn’t preventing CUSD and its unions from moving forward with preparations for reopening, whenever that may be.

“Honestly I hear something different every day,” Ms. Olesniewicz said. “Three weeks ago we were hearing teachers in L.A. County could get them as soon as early February. Obviously that has come and gone. Now with everything you hear in the news, we feel like we’ll be lucky if it’s the first week in March.”

The district has partnered with Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center and Pomona Fairplex in an effort to streamline vaccinations for its employees once the doses are made available to educators.

Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center “is ready to go,” Ms. Olesniewicz said. “They’ve got the website, they’ve got a link so all of our teachers can hop on there and make an appointment. They’re just waiting for the vaccines.”

A glance at the comments on the COURIER’s Facebook post from earlier this week regarding L.A. County’s announcement that elementary schools can reopen makes it clear that many parents and caregivers are anxious for kids to return to school and feel the risk to students and their families is minimal.

Still others remain cautious for several reasons, including the inconsistent rollout of vaccines, especially for educators. And despite calls from county health officials to reopen schools, Los Angeles County—like most all of California—remains in the purple tier, the most extreme measure of the state’s coronavirus risk level, with adjusted case rates above seven per 100,000 and positivity rates in excess of eight per 100,000.

“We all miss the kids,” Ms. Weiler said. “Everybody I talk to agrees. We just want a safe return for everybody. I totally miss the chaos in the office. It’s just very quiet. The sooner we can get back the better, but it has to be safe for everybody, and everybody has to feel comfortable. It’s a matter of safety and health for when the students return, and what’s best for everybody overall.”

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