Elementary students returned to classrooms in Long Beach, Calif., on Monday and campuses from Los Angeles to Boston prepared for significant expansions of in-person instruction as a majority of the nation’s districts have now begun to reopen school buildings, many of which have been closed for more than a year.
On Monday, Burbio, which monitors some 1,200 districts including the largest 200 in the country, reported that 53.1 percent of students were in schools offering daily, in-person classes, and that for the first time, the proportion of students attending school virtually or in hybrid classes had dropped.
The change, Burbio officials said, appeared to be driven by the return in elementary and middle schools to in-person classes, and by the new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention permitting schools to allow three feet of social distance instead of six feet in elementary schools.
But a number of roadblocks to reopening remain. On the West Coast, large urban districts generally have lagged behind their counterparts across the rest of the nation. Surging infections in Southern California after the winter holidays were partly to blame for a slow rebound in the Los Angeles school system.
Part of the slow start can be traced to resistance from teachers, whose unions generally are more powerful in Democratic-led Washington, Oregon and California than in many other states, and who have been wary of returning to what they regard as a hazardous workplace, despite federal guidance that elementary schools in particular are safe when health precautions are followed.
Even some schools where teachers have agreed to return are still experiencing setbacks. Schools in Oakland and San Francisco, for example, are scheduled to reopen next month for elementary and special-needs students. But labor agreements in both of those California cities have allowed substantial numbers of teachers to opt out, leaving some schools without enough teachers to reopen and prompting others to scramble for substitutes.
Public schools in California’s top three districts by enrollment — Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno — have said they will begin to allow grade-school students back onto campus later in April, as new coronavirus cases have fallen sharply statewide.
And on Monday, Long Beach — the state’s fourth-largest district, with about 70,000 students — began allowing about 14,000 elementary students back into school buildings for about 2½ hours each day, five days a week.
The Long Beach school district was able to open earlier than other large California school systems because labor unions there agreed last summer to reopen as soon as health conditions permitted, and because the city was able to start vaccinating teachers earlier than other districts in the state.
Unlike most other cities in Los Angeles County, Long Beach has its own public health department, giving the city its own vaccine supplies and the power to set its own vaccine priorities, at a time when the county as a whole was making teachers wait until after other groups, like residents 65 and older, were vaccinated.
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“A city with its own health department has the ability to be more nimble,” said Jill Baker, the city’s schools superintendent, who called the return to classrooms this week “exciting and momentous.”
The school district is among the city’s largest employers, and two-thirds of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, so vaccinating school employees and reopening classrooms was viewed as economically important, Ms. Baker said.
In-person classes for older students are scheduled to resume April 19, with grades 6 to 8 getting the option to return on April 20 and grades 9 to 11 on April 26. The last day of school will be in mid-June.