The brass at the Los Angeles Unified School District has spent much of the past few months attempting to place chits on every spot of a virtual bingo board of coronavirus health and safety measures. The steps include installing top-notch air-filtration systems, ensuring that every teacher and other on-campus employee has the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before crossing paths with kids, and yanking desks out of classrooms so students have six feet of space between them. That’s just the beginning: The district also instituted a copious testing system, has enacted staggered entry times in elementary schools to ease arrival and departure crowding, and even initiated a vaccination program at campuses for families in high-needs communities.
About 60 elementary schools will see students return this week, with the remainder resuming in-person instruction the week of April 19. LAUSD middle and high schools will restart after that (many charter and private schools, and some smaller local school districts are already back).
Superintendent Austin Beutner has also spent much of the last month trying to convince the parents of nearly 500,000 K-12 students that campuses are safe enough to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19. There have been principal-led and town hall meetings, and the district has dispensed colorful print and online brochures detailing the new protocols. Every family has been given multiple chances to declare whether their children will head back to campus or stick with online instruction.
Count our family among the crowd, and after a year of painful distance learning and avoiding the coronavirus like the plague it is, we have made our decision, but it’s a split one. We have two children in LAUSD institutions: a son in elementary school and a daughter in middle school. Our son will go back. Our daughter will continue to learn in our dining room while wearing comfy sweatpants.
Our family is fortunate. We have good internet connectivity and schedules that allow either my wife or I to be home during the school day. The kids have quiet places to work. We don’t take this for granted, knowing that about 80 percent of district students are in families living at or below the poverty line.
Yet even with these advantages, the academic year has bordered on dumpster fire status. Zoom is a flimsy facsimile for the personal attention a teacher provides in the classroom, and Beutner has referenced a surge in high school students receiving Ds and Fs. Seeing your child miss out on a year of social interaction is soul-crushing.
Our son’s elementary school experience won’t be anything like it was pre-COVID. He’ll wear a mask and only be in school about three hours a day (with other assigned work at home, though students can stay on campus, with adult supervision, for eight hours if needed). The cacophony that comes with dozens of pre-adolescents jammed together will be diluted as his class is divided into “cohorts,” with some in the classroom during the morning, and others in the afternoon. We’re grateful that he can be on campus with is teacher every day (his East Coast cousin only goes to her physical school two or three a days a week), but we have no idea if he will be in the same session as his good friends.
We’re not oblivious to the risk. My wife and I have each had one shot of a two-dose vaccination regimen, but we won’t be fully protected until several weeks after he has been interacting with potential spittle-spewing kids. We’re believing the Centers for Disease Control declaration that schools can be safe as long as strict health protocols are followed. That takes us back to the aforementioned bingo board—we’re trusting that the spots are indeed covered.
“It’s all about giving our son the chance to engage, to rebuild friendships, and have the conversations that elementary school boys have.”
In an almost counterintuitive way, our schooling decision isn’t heavily based on learning—only two months remain in the academic year, and while every bit helps, this home stretch run isn’t likely to reverse the learning loss suffered by any child. Rather, it’s all about giving our son the chance to engage, to rebuild friendships, and have the conversations that elementary school boys have (“In Roblox you can…”). In a year kidnapped by the coronavirus, this is his chance to be a kid.
Our daughter also needs her kid time, but that’s a lot harder to find in the LAUSD system for middle and high schools, where every student has a different schedule. They will return to campus a few days each week, but rather than move from class to class, they will arrive for a morning homeroom session with a teacher and small number of students, then slap on headphones and take all their classes online in that room.
My daughter misses her friends dearly, but there is no real likelihood she would be hanging out with them in this scenario. I’m sure the high school kids will figure out ways to break the protocols and breathe all over each other, because that’s what you do in high school. But this kind of sequestering just doesn’t appeal.
“My daughter misses her friends dearly, but there is no real likelihood she would be hanging out with them in this scenario.”
This doesn’t mean I object to the LAUSD plan. It’s imperfect but strategic—have an outbreak in a tight cohort and you quarantine the cohort. Have an outbreak when students are bopping across the campus and you instantly need alternative plans for hundreds of students, not to mention the potential COVID exposure for multigenerational households. Plus, many students will need the steady internet and on-campus meals the district is providing.
While we hate sticking with distance learning, we’re not alone: According to data the LAUSD released on April 8, just 25 percent of middle school students are going back to campus, and only 17 percent of high school students are returning (39 percent of elementary school students are set to head back).
We’re about to enter the latest strange segment of this too-strange year: our daughter shoeless at home, our son in a mask on campus. By the time we finally establish a rhythm, everything will probably come to an end—the last day of class is June 11.
We can only hope that next year is different. We all say that a lot these days.
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