COVID Case Rates Drop and Schools Reopen – LA County Focuses on Students’ “Lost Year”
From left to right: Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Los Angeles County’s 5th District; Eloisa Gonzalez, MD, MPH, Director of Integrative Medicine, LAC+USC Historic General Hospital Wellness Center; Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools; Nathan Kuo, senior, Arcadia High School
By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services
On the eve of re-opening school for all 2 million of its students, the Los Angeles County Office of Education is paying special attention to what those students have to say about their “lost year” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a press briefing on March 11, the one-year anniversary of California’s statewide public school closure, Stanford-bound Arcadia High School senior Nathan Kuo shared a letter sent to President Biden by the county’s Student Leader Advisory Council, of which he is a member.
High on its list of priority funding suggestions are more college, career and mental health counselors to help students and school staff bounce back from varied challenges posed by a year of distanced learning and its many inequities.
“When the distinction between home and school life is blurred, it becomes incredibly difficult,” Kuo said.
Different students had to deal with diverse needs beyond their control, he explained. Some parents had to go to work out in the community. He was lucky, he said, his parents could work from home.
Some students already had or took on work responsibilities including caring for younger siblings. There were disparities in the ability to access online learning, and with its effectiveness across different students’ learning modes.
Joining Kuo in the briefing were County Department of Health spokeswoman Dr. Eloisa Gonzalez, who gave the latest pandemic news and updates for L.A. County, County District 5 Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Office of Education Superintendent Debra Duardo.
“We have witnessed a significant emotional, educational and academic decline in our students,” Barger said.
But schools for sixth-grade and younger students have been cleared to reopen for a month, Barger noted, and she expects grade 7-12 students could return by March 17, if the state maintains its “red tier” status based on two weeks of fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents.
Barger’s large, diverse northern Los Angeles County District 5 is home to the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia itself, she noted. As she spoke, the interpreters were simultaneously interpreting in Armenian, Spanish, Mandarin and Korean. She emphasized the importance of sharing COVID-19 strategies and news in communities served by “culturally competent” ethnic media, a source sometimes trusted more than health professionals themselves.
Barger and Duardo both pledged that student views on restoring the county’s education system are being taken seriously and prioritized.
“The Student Leader Advisory Council is really important, and should guide everything we do in education,” Duardo said. Through it, educators “learned a lot about what students — the most important customer we have — are experiencing.”
“This pandemic has disrupted every element of education. We should all be concerned about the trauma inflicted on our future workforce. We have to make sure we are accelerating learning when students come back.”
Acknowledging “alarming setbacks in students’ well-being as well as learning,” Duardo said, “districts have been keeping track of which students have not been participating, not coming to school … they will be at the front of the line in determining what’s going on.”
“The good news,” she said, “is that a lot of funding — $6 billion — is being provided to school districts to make sure that they can purchase the PPE that they need, hire more people, and also, looking at mental health, making sure we can bring in more counselors.”
The county’s new case rate is now less than 700 per day, the lowest since April 2020, Dr. Gonzalez said.
The most recent numbers (March 2) show daily deaths and hospitalizations are also declining, but are still higher than before the November-December surge, she said.
Newly eligible for vaccines are county residents or workers who are public transit workers, custodians and janitors, airport ground crews, social workers at risk of violent encounters, and foster parents who provide emergency housing.
On March 15, eligibility will extend to people 16-64 who are pregnant or have conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, Gonzalez noted.
When you show up for your appointment, Gonzalez said, you’ll have to document your identity, that you live or work in L.A. County, and that you are eligible to be vaccinated by virtue of your age, occupation or other something confirming your eligibility.
Those documents could include something as unofficial as a utility bill, work ID or Costco card, she said, as long as it has the relevant information.
The vaccinations are offered at no charge, and with no questions about citizenship or immigration status.
Appointments can be made over the phone, at (833) 540-0437, at the county website (https://tinyurl.com/LAVAXAPPTS) and via community organizations’ “promotoras,” who are working in under-served communities to help overcome any challenges to getting vaccine appointments, such as lack of transportation or Internet access, for instance.
Vaccination rates are still lowest in African American, Latinx and American Indian/Native Alaskan communities, Gonzalez said.
But the biggest challenges currently remain getting more vaccine supplies and convincing everyone to keep their guards up against catching the virus – wearing masks, hand-washing, social distancing, carefully re-thinking any spring break or other travel plans.
“I think the adults are more challenging than students,” Duardo said. “My grandchildren wear their masks all the time. It’s just part of everyday life now.”
“We are building to create some sort of normal,” Barger said, “but it’s not going to be like it was back in February last year.”