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Limited reopening of L.A. County elementary schools allowed

The LA Times logo The LA Times 9/29/2020 Paloma Esquivel
a person sitting at a desk: Diana Torres teaches kindergarten students from her empty classroom at St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School in La Puente. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times) © (Los Angeles Times) Diana Torres teaches kindergarten students from her empty classroom at St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School in La Puente. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

A limited number of elementary schools will be able to apply for waivers to reopen transitional kindergarten through second-grade classrooms under a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decision Tuesday that gives priority to schools serving higher numbers of low-income families.

"As October approaches it's critical that we begin the process of reopening our schools at limited capacity," said Board Chair Kathryn Barger, who proposed the motion along with Supervisor Janice Hahn.

Los Angeles County officials, citing high local COVID-19 case rates, have held back on allowing elementary schools to apply for waivers to reopen, which are allowed under state guidelines. But some school leaders, particularly private school operators, have been urging the county to rethink its position.

This week, a coalition of private schools called on supervisors and public health officials to begin accepting waiver applications in which schools must demonstrate they have strict safety measures in place. The Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District had also urged the county to begin accepting the applications.

Barger framed the motion as one meant to help address deep inequities in distance learning that disproportionately affect the education of low-income and Black and Latino students. Educators have also said that distance learning forced by coronavirus school campus closures is particularly difficult for the youngest elementary school children.

"The state, county and school districts have invested heavily in distance learning technology, however gaps still exist that disproportionately impact minority communities," Barger said. "All students are entitled to a free and appropriate education. For many of our students most at risk, distance learning is neither free nor appropriate."

Although state guidelines allow elementary schools to reopen under waivers approved by local health officials and the state, counties are not required to grant them. Los Angeles County officials have previously said that no campus in the county will be able to fully reopen until November at the earliest.

Though case rates in L.A. County have shown positive signs recently, the county remains in the state's most-restrictive purple tier, officials said.

"We're a very large county and the cautious approach I think at this point has been beneficial," said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

Still, Ferrer noted that she had heard from parents and educators who wanted the county to consider accepting waivers.

"I know that on my calls with educators and parents there have been questions raised about is there a possibility for us to reconsider," she said.

The county has allowed schools to offer small in-person classes for children with special needs and more than 500 schools are opened now under those rules, Ferrer said.

Times staff writers Andrew J. Campa and Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this story.

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