The front entrance to Long Beach Poly High School on Atlantic Avenue in Long Beach. (Photo courtesy of Christine Ho/Flickr)

With over 70,000 students, Long Beach Unified is the largest school district in California to announce school reopening plans, although it will be nearly six weeks before any students will return for regular in-person instruction, and even then on a part-time basis.

A key aspect of the plan is that teachers will likely be fully vaccinated by the time schools open for elementary students who will return on March 29, based on a plan announced at the district’s school board meeting Wednesday night. Presented as an information item at the meeting, formal board approval of the plan is not needed.

Compared to most other school districts in the state, Long Beach Unified has a distinct advantage: Long Beach is one of only four California communities to have its own public health department, rather than being part of a countywide one, and is therefore freer to set priorities for vaccinations.  Addressing a central concern of many teachers and their unions, over 2,000 school employees have already received their first vaccinations, and an additional 1,600 are being vaccinated this week. The district anticipates being able to vaccinate all its elementary teachers by the end of the week, and some have already received their second dose.

School Superintendent Jill Baker and Long Beach Mayor Mike Garcia will provide more details at a live news conference at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

Many parents will be enthusiastic about getting their children back to school whenever they can during the current school year, even if it is at the end of March or April. For others, however, the new timetable will come as a disappointment. Last December, district officials pushed back the reopening date to March 1 at the earliest, and that timeline now has been pushed back by another month. The difference is that now the district’s plans are far more concrete, and tied to actual vaccinations of teachers.

Just a month ago, Baker, in her first year heading the district, signed on to a letter with six other large urban superintendents harshly critical of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new “Safe Schools for All” reopening plan he announced on Dec. 30.

Yet the reopening plan has been made possible at least in part by the less stringent requirements announced by Newsom at the time. It allows districts to open, at least for elementary school students, if the average daily rate of new infections per 100,000 residents in their county is less than 25, even if it is still in the most restrictive “purple” tier on the state’s monitoring list.

Fourth-largest district in the state

Long Beach Unified is in Los Angeles County, where the average daily rate of new cases is now 20 per 100,000.  It is the fourth-largest district in the state. The larger ones — Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified and Fresno Unified — have yet to announce concrete plans for returning to school.

Of the 25 largest school districts, according to a map recently compiled by the state, only Capistrano Unified is in a predominantly in-person mode of instruction for elementary school students, while just three others — Clovis Unified, Poway Unified and Irvine Unified — are offering hybrid instruction (combining in-person and remote instruction) for some or all grades, depending on the district. The remaining 21 districts all report to the state that their primary mode of instruction is through “distance learning only.”

The plan for schools

Under Long Beach’s plan, transitional kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers would return to classes to prepare for their students’ return on March 22. Elementary students would return on a hybrid schedule — a mixture of both in-person and distance learning — on March 29, just a few days before the district’s spring break, which starts on April 2. The district will guarantee that all teachers who want it will receive the two required doses of the vaccine before they face students in-person.

Middle school students who wish to return to campus would do so on a hybrid schedule on April 20, exactly two months from now, while high school students would return on April 26, a timetable that will give more than enough time to vaccinate teachers and other school staff, assuming that sufficient doses of the vaccine are available. But for these older students to return, at least under current regulations, LA County would need to be in the “red” tier, and new daily infection rate would have to be 7 or less per 100,000.

It is still a long way from being at that level.

* Story originally published by EdSource.