Covid Surge Leads to End of In-Person Learning at LA County Schools

Staff at Belvedere Middle School in Los Angeles maintain the grounds while students work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. The school, which opened its doors in 1924, serves grades 6 through 8 under the LA Unified School District, the second largest district in the country. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr.)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The aggressive spread of Covid-19 in recent weeks has forced the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second largest — to end in-person learning and day care for 4,000 students.

According to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the rate of spread in LA is three times higher than San Francisco and double the rate of New York. The rampant surge that began in early November continues to barrel through December and shows no signs of slowing down.

On Sunday, LA County health officials reported over 10,000 new Covid-19 infections in a 24-hour period. Officials reported 8,000 new cases and 27 deaths Monday, but acknowledged the figures are likely low due to the weekend.

Schools across the nation closed this March at the onset of the pandemic and made the jump to online learning, including LAUSD and its roughly 600,000s. But after smaller school districts rolled out “learning pods” to provide in-person lessons to small cohorts of students, LA Unified followed suit this past September.

On Monday, Superintendent Austin Beutner said on-campus services would be suspended later this week. The decision affects approximately 4,000 students in kindergarten to the 12th grade, along with students who are part of outdoor athletic programs.

“Because of the extraordinary high level of Covid-19 in the Los Angeles area, it is no longer safe and appropriate to have any students on campus,” Beutner said in a statement. “We will also be asking those who are currently working at schools to work from home if at all possible for the rest of the semester.”

He called the decision disappointing, because LAUSD began to test staff and students for the virus at the start of the fall semester to establish a contact-tracing framework for when the rest of the district’s students return to their classrooms.

About 5,400 staff and students were tested as part of the in-person learning program that began in September. At the time, the county’s daily case rate was below 1,000.

But in the last month the rate has jumped and in the last few days public health officials have reported daily case totals ranging from 8,000 to 10,000.

“We can’t create a bubble for the school community. When things are so dangerous in the communities we serve, it has implications for schools as well,” said Beutner. “My hope is this action today will not only protect the health and safety of all in the school community but will keep the focus where it needs to be — getting the spread of Covid-19 down to levels where schools can safely reopen.”

Beutner said reopening LAUSD schools for in-person lessons will need state and federal funding. He also said the district will need a “Marshall Plan for schools” which harkens back to the recovery of Europe after the devastation of World War II.

When students return to school, Beutner said they will need sanitized facilities, testing and contact tracing to avoid outbreaks, and mental-health support for “the significant trauma that will accompany” students back to the classroom. They will also need extra school over the next summer to help them catch up from the lessons they missed during the pandemic.

But when schools will reopen remains unclear.

The decision to end the in-person learning program early comes as most of California is thrust into a new stay-at-home order as the rate of infection continues to skyrocket statewide.

In the first week of December, LA County health officials reported a daily positivity rate over 11%. In the last four days, the county reported over 36,000 cases while the daily hospitalization total is now nearly 3,000.

Available intensive care unit (ICU) beds in LA County fell below 15% over the weekend and forced LA County into a regional stay-at-home order per state guidelines that will be in effect for the next three weeks. Ten million Angelenos were already under a similar health order that limited capacity at businesses and banned outdoor dining after the daily case rate surpassed a threshold established by county officials.

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