Austin Beutner Talks Virus Rates, Funding Challenges, and What It Will Take to Get Kids Back to the Classroom

The LAUSD superintendent had to make the tough call to keep classrooms closed this fall. Here’s how he’s navigating the pandemic on behalf of 500,000 students

On Monday morning, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that, due to the spread of the coronavirus, the school year that begins on August 18 will commence solely with distance learning. This hampers an aim to institute a hybrid schedule that would mix on-campus, socially distant lessons with at-home Zoom and other instruction. It is unknown when the approximately 500,000 K-12 students—an estimated 80 percent of whom live in low-income households—will be able to return to campus.

The challenges the district faces are myriad and are not only about education; schools in many communities serve as a social safety net, providing meals and a safe space for kids while parents work.

Beutner spoke with Los Angeles about what it will take to reopen campuses, reimagining instruction amid the coronavirus, and funding concerns. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

The announcement that LAUSD will start the school year with distance learning was not a surprise, but it’s still difficult to accept. When did this become inevitable, and how hard was it for you to reach this decision?

It’s no surprise, but it is disappointing for all of us. Everyone who works in the schools wants to be back in school with the children in the classroom. There should be no doubt about that. We all know the best learning happens in schools.

But we have to balance three things: the learning needs of students, the impact the virus is having on working families, and the health and safety of all in the school community. As we have seen, what’s been happening with the virus in Los Angeles in the last month or so, everything’s going in the wrong direction. The occurrence of the virus is skyrocketing.

If you look at what the World Health Organization uses as a guideline, they say look at the portion of those who are tested who test positive for the virus, and 5 percent is kind of their guidance. So above 5 percent, think about shutting back down. Below 5 percent, think about reopening.

Los Angeles was in the 4s back in May, in June it started going to the 6s, and in July we’re in the 9s and 10s. That’s not a yellow flag, that’s a red flag.

As much as we want to be back in school, health and safety can’t be compromised. And right now the right decision is to start school online, and work to get back to school as quickly as we possibly can.

So you’re keeping open the option to have on-campus instruction later in the school year, correct?

We absolutely intend to be back in schools with instruction happening at schools. That’s an imperative. The challenge for us is how soon we can do it and how we can do it safely.

I’ve been saying since April that in order to get back, we have to do three things: one is going to be a different set of health practices, with more space between individuals, tape on the floor to remind people about that, masks, cleaning, sanitizing. It’s not cheap, it’s not easy, but we will do that. That’s where the hybrid comes in, because one of the consequences of that is when you keep people further apart you have less room for all of your students.

Part two and three are testing and contact tracing. As we’ve seen in other parts of the world, and as I’ve tried to share with our community since the virus came, that has to be a part of going back, in particular knowing that those without symptoms can be spreaders.

You made a comment in your address of not wanting campuses to become petri dishes.

I’ll give an example. Hamilton High School has almost 2,900 students and staff. If you add up the siblings of students and family members of staff and children of staff, and the school communities they touch, the 2,900 people at Hamilton have close contact with another 100,000 people. That’s a petri dish.

Flip it on its head and you say, gosh, if we tested the 3,000, we can protect 100,000. We’re ideally situated to do the testing because we’re that multiplier, the place where communities connect and generations connect. It’s not just the ten-year-old student, but their 30-year-old teacher, the 50-year-old bus driver, and going home to the 70-year-old grandmother.

The LAUSD made a concerted effort in the spring to get Chromebooks and other devices into the hands of each student, and internet connectivity in every home, including the district households that did not have it. Will that be in place come August 18?

Absolutely. Keeping every student connected to their school community is vital. We set off on the moonshot back in March and we got there. We got every student reconnected to their school community: the devices they needed, internet access for free. We continued that for the summer. We bought more student back for summer school than we ever had. It’s the first time we offered summer school for all students.

“We’ve learned. Adapting on the fly is different than starting from scratch. We know we will start from scratch.”

Obviously the situation is different for elementary, middle, and high schools, but do you expect that every student will have some sort of live instruction and visual interaction with a teacher each day?

There will be daily interaction with a teacher. There will be attendance taken. There will be assessments of student progress that the teacher can share with the student to help the student improve. It will be shared with the family. There will be standards-based instruction. All those foundation pieces will be in place.

We’ve learned. March was finishing a school year. The instructional plan had been created based on being in a classroom. So adapting on the fly is different than starting from scratch. We know we will start from scratch. That’s one of the reasons why teachers are excited, to have that daily interaction, because they’re going to meet their students.

And we’ll push the boundaries of what’s possible, so while school facilities may be closed, and we can’t bring all students back to a congregate setting, we’re going to do what we can to help those who are struggling the most: our earliest learners, those with learning differences or disabilities, those learning English. We’ll see if there are ways to have an after-school session one-on-one, or Saturday morning, or another thing to complement the online learning. We know for some students a Zoom may not be adequate. So we’ll adapt.

This week LAUSD will hit 45 million meals served since schools closed March 13. This has taken place all summer, when the district usually does not serve this many meals. How have you been able to sustain this effort?

I’m proud of my colleagues who have risen to the challenge. When school facilities closed we recognized we needed to do all we could to keep students learning, which was the devices and the connectivity we spoke of. And we needed to continue to provide a safety net: at a minimum nutrition and mental health support.

On the meal side, we had to flip it on its head and say our goal is to serve anyone in need. From the first day we did not ask the question, ‘Are you enrolled?’ We did not ask whether you’re a child or an adult. If you’re hungry we’re going to help, because the community needed help. It’s the extraordinary hard work of the men and women of Los Angeles Unified and our volunteer partners who have joined us on the journey who have allowed that to happen. The foundation piece is people in facilities: our cafeteria workers, our distribution workers, our school leaders, our principals who work tirelessly to make sure we have more than 60 places around the community where hungry children and adults can come for food.

In your address you noted that LAUSD gets no money to feed adults. You stated, “It’s of great concern that none of the other parts of government are supporting this effort with the funding they have.” Can you continue this operation without financial assistance?

It’s of great concern. I have personally been on conversations with leadership at the federal level, the Department of Education, the Department to Agriculture, trying to find resources federally, and they both gave us pretty clear answers, which is the money’s been sent. Between the ordinary money from government and the extraordinary money with the CARES Act, the state has money, the county has money, the city has money.

I think the principal party here is the county. They are the ones who run something called CalFresh, which is the companion piece to the supplemental nutrition systems program. So that’s the adult partner to the child meals we serve in the schools. They’ve got money. They should be reimbursing the school district.

This pandemic isn’t going anywhere. We should have CalFresh teams at each of our meal distribution points signing up hungry adults who come through to make sure they can participate in the program, and so far we haven’t gotten the response we need from the county.

Speaking of money, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have threatened that federal funds will be withheld from school districts that don’t reopen campuses. While the legality of the move is in question, how do you, as the person in charge of a district with 500,000 K-12 students, respond?

I’m focused on the needs of our students. There are many who wish we could be back in school. We have to be careful of the wish being farther than the thought, and the notion, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that you could tap your heels three times and get back home. That’s not how we’ll get back to school.

There’s real work to be done, and my hope is federal leadership would focus on the work to be done. My hope is they’d focus on the need to make sure students have devices and are connected—provide the funding. My hope is at the federal level there would be the focus on this conversation about testing and contact tracing that’s needed. Put it in the stimulus. Get us the resources. Allow that to be done. You want children back in school tomorrow? That’s the best way to get them back in school tomorrow: provide the testing and contact tracing.

“The notion, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that you could tap your heels three times and get back home. That’s not how we’ll get back to school.”

There is no precedent for navigating the LAUSD through a global pandemic. What gets you through this, as you face questions and have to give answers no one wants?

It’s knowing we have a really awesome responsibility to try to serve the needs of students. For many of them a great education is the best path out of poverty. For all of them it’s the promise of opportunity galore in their lives. That’s what gets me out of bed, because it’s a mission-driven organization, and I’m privileged to be part of it. If each day we make it somehow better for the students and families we serve, that’s progress.

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