LA County Task Force Lays Out Plan to Reopen Schools

Residents of East Los Angeles stand in line and wait in their cars to collect food donations outside James A. Garfield High School as part of the school district’s effort to support families struggling through the Covid-19 pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/Martin Macias Jr.)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A task force led by the Los Angeles County Office of Education proposed a framework Wednesday for reopening schools in the upcoming academic year that will involve more space between students than in traditional classroom setups and strict social distancing on campuses. 

All K-12 school campuses in LA County shut their doors in March due to the coronavirus outbreak, which had infected over 17,500 people in California at that point.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s 6.2 million students would learn from home through the end of the school year, though local education and health officials can decide when classrooms open again.

The Office of Education task force — which includes two dozen school district superintendents and education leaders from the region — urged regional officials to be transparent as they explore reopening plans in the coming weeks.

The current framework proposes limiting classroom size to nearly 16 students, staggering student attendance and operating a hybrid schedule that combines in-person instruction and at-home learning. Also, cloth face coverings would be required for students and staff, volunteers and visitors would be restricted from campuses and students would sit at least six feet apart in classrooms.

Playgrounds, play stations and other spaces for social interaction between students would essentially be cut under the framework.

Students would also be guided through processing and debriefing their experiences during the pandemic, according to the plan.

The task force’s planning document will guide the region’s 80 school districts in their planning process as they discuss reopening plans with their local communities, according to a statement Wednesday by LACOE Superintendent Debra Duardo.

“In a short time, we have developed a comprehensive planning tool covering all aspects of school operations,” said Duardo, adding the tool covers instruction plans, health protocols, support systems, budget management and community engagement. 

Each school district will vary in their reopening designs but Duardo urged education leaders to prioritize student health and safety and adherence to public health guidelines.

“While the crisis has shown that our school communities are flexible and innovative, it also has created and exacerbated educational inequities that must be addressed,” Duardo said in the statement. “We know schools will need additional resources to become better equipped and skilled at remote learning, address learning loss, implement vital health and safety protocols and support mental health and wellness.”

Duardo did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on the plan.

Any adopted version of the plan would impact some 2 million students in LA County who are served by the region’s charter schools, school districts and other education agencies.

The shift to distance learning caught many families and teachers off guard as they struggled to obtain or engage with the required technology for online classes while also staving off infection of the deadly virus.

A survey this month by the LA Unified School District, which operates more than 1,400 schools serving nearly 600,000 students, found 25% of families are unhappy with how the district has coordinated class instruction and distribution of learning materials during the pandemic.

About half of LAUSD families still lack the technology or equipment needed for their children to take part in online classes even after the district launched a robust effort to supply students with laptops and internet, the survey found. 

Another 57% of families reported they’d lost their jobs as a result of a pandemic-fueled economic downturn, according to the survey of over 12,000 district families.

In a statement on the survey, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said district programs, such as a massive food donation operation, are meant to support struggling families. 

“Providing devices and internet access is just the beginning and we’ll continue to train educators, students and families how to get the most out of online learning,” Beutner said in the May 18 statement. “Job losses and the impact on families is a stark reminder of how real the struggle is in the communities we serve.”

The United Teachers of Los Angeles, the labor union representing LAUSD’s teachers, said in a statement the proposed framework is only a guide for reopening and that district’s plans should be bargained with the priorities of the union and community members in mind.

“There is no vision for a safe reopening that does not involve additional resources for schools — resources to implement social distancing and other safety guidelines and funding for the additional supports our students need in the wake of this crisis, including increased mental health support,” UTLA said in a statement shared by union spokesperson Anna Bakalis.

The teachers union — which led a weeklong strike in 2019 over students’ learning conditions — said district reopening plans should be coordinated with massive state and federal investments in housing and health care programs for students’ families. 

“This is especially critical in LA, with our students living with so many of the equity issues that coronavirus has laid bare: students in high-density living situations with multigenerational families; the disproportionate exposure and death rates among communities of color, especially Pacific Islander and black communities; and a lack of accessibility to health care,” the union said in its statement. “We also know that, as various sectors reopen for business, parents and guardians will return to work and will not have the choice that others have to keep their children at home safely.”

The task force’s proposal Wednesday was called unrealistic by parents and educators who reviewed it.

Kirti Baranwal, who teaches Spanish to second and third graders at LA Unified, said the proposal falls short of ensuring the safety of students and school staff.

“If any mistakes are made in implementing these guidelines, it only takes one person to get sick and spread the virus to the school community,” Baranwal said in an interview. “The current health data doesn’t support that it’s safer now to reopen schools at this level. This is not the way to do it. I want us to stay safer at home and have the federal and state government give a bailout to public schools and the families we serve, in the same way corporations are getting now.”

Baranwal also said the plan fails to recognize the importance of play and social interaction in children’s’ development.

“They are acting like it’s optional and we can just do the academic part, as if we can neatly compartmentalize the two,” Baranwal said. “We need to be creative in how we support the economic, academic, and physical and emotional health of the families we serve.”

Resident Betty Lee, mother of three LAUSD students, said the proposal to limit classroom size and cycle student attendance is unrealistic.

“As compact and filled to capacity as our LAUSD system is, the idea that we can do 16-20 kids per class, stagger school attendance days, play yard rules, it’s a very unrealistic goal and plan,” Lee said. “LAUSD doesn’t have the manpower or budget to implement the needed changes nor can they enforce the necessary physical distancing.”

Susan Reccelle, mother of three LAUSD students, said the new rules at rebooted school campuses will be difficult for children to handle on multiple levels. 

“It’s so sad,” Reccelle said. “I think kids are going to have a really hard time adjusting to their ‘new normal,’ especially the little ones.”

Despite the radical changes on campuses, Reccelle said she understands the need to take measures to keep campuses safe. 

The task force’s reopening designs came out the day California surpassed 100,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among state residents and the nation reached the tragic milestone of 100,000 deaths from the virus. 

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