On a serene Saturday morning in early March, women in matching purple shirts stood under a small white canopy in South L.A.’s Ted Watkins Memorial Park, handing out backpacks and school supplies to those who stopped. All were masked, and many held signs: “LISTEN TO SCIENCE,” “Parents want LOCAL CONTROL,” “UTLA HOSTAGE,” “VIRTUAL IS NOT REALITY.”
The demonstration, hosted by the community organization Women of Watts (WOW), marked the year anniversary of Los Angeles public schools being shuttered by the pandemic. Those gathered were no longer mourning lives lost to the virus; they were lamenting their children’s futures, which they feel have been compromised by a year of remote learning. The protest demanded a seat at the table for parents as Los Angeles United School District and the teacher’s union, UTLA, hashed out the details of a plan to reopen schools in the spring.
Rallies like this one—most of them organized by parents—have been happening for months, and with increasing urgency as Los Angeles County works its way through the COVID safety tiers and more facets of the economy open.
“If you can go to Costco, the mall, the gym, movie theaters, then why can’t you go into the classroom as the CDC regulates?” wonders Ghazal Yashouafar, an LAUSD mother of three.
In March, LAUSD and UTLA reached an agreement to begin a staggered reopening of schools on April 12, but many parents are displeased with the details and resent having been left out of the planning process.
On April 1, a group of four parents teamed with conservative think tank the Freedom Foundation to file a lawsuit against LAUSD, UTLA, and UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz, accusing them of “[holding] the current well-being and future prospects of LAUSD students’ hostage.” On Wednesday, April 7, a different group of parents filed another lawsuit, this one targeting LAUSD and LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner. They claim that the present reopening plan “violates legal requirements” and denies students their “constitutional right” to a public education.
While the first lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against UTLA as well as monetary damages for their children’s impaired education, the second, led by California Students United (CSU), has a narrower aim, seeking a temporary restraining order as an expedited form of relief focused on pressuring the district to provide satisfactory learning options for the coming fall. To CSU, this means a commitment to full-time, in-person instruction in accordance with recommended safety measures. The lawsuit, self-funded by volunteer parents, is currently receiving donations via GoFundMe.
“LAUSD has refused to follow the scientific-based evidence or the school guidelines provided by the [CDC], the California Department of Public Health, or the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health,” a CSU press release says. “Under state law (SB 98), the district ‘must provide in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible’ as soon as permitted.”
One of the most contentious parts of the LAUSD/UTLA plan to reopen schools involves middle and high schoolers being physically in the classroom just two days a week—as opposed to five days for elementary students—to participate in a hybrid teaching model. One period per day would be taught in person, and the rest would be conducted over Zoom to students in noise-canceling headphones seated six feet apart in a shared homeroom classroom.
Ladetria, a Watts grandmother who asked that we not use her last name, complained that teachers seem disengaged over Zoom: “They have their cameras off, they aren’t teaching the kids, so I noticed all the other kids doing the same thing, and other teachers doing the same thing.” Wealthier families, meanwhile, might curtail the possible negative effects of distance learning by hiring private tutors for quality teaching and socialization, or even by leaving the district altogether, as some have done.
LAUSD parent Renee Bailey wishes parents would have been looped in to the reopening planning process. “We need more transparency on the conversations that are happening, and we need elected parent representatives from each district included in the conversation,” she says. “And they can’t have ties to UTLA or LAUSD.”
LAUSD declined to comment on the legal action filed by CSU on Wednesday, but in response to the April 1 lawsuit, emphasized that ensuring a safe return to campus was essential to the wellbeing of the entire LAUSD community, above and beyond the 600,000 students they educate.
“A bus driver takes students to school, a principal unlocks the front door, a teacher leads in the classroom, a cafeteria worker prepares lunch and a custodian keeps the school clean–they’re all connected at school,” an LAUSD statement says. “Providing all employees access to the vaccine is helping us reopen schools as soon as possible and in the safest way possible.”
Of course, not all parents stand with the reopening activists. Members of Reclaim Our Schools L.A., a group aligned with UTLA, have voiced concern about a full reopening. “We cannot open schools until we have vaccines for all staff at school, for families, for our communities,” said LAUSD parent and South L.A. resident Elizabeth Hernandez on a recent panel aiming to address media bias. She added in a later interview that despite wider vaccination efforts, the lines to get vaccinated remain “humongous” and the appointments are often difficult to access. “We still have people who haven’t gotten tested once, and they really have no idea if they have it or they had it.”
Hernandez says she isn’t willing to risk her family’s safety in spite of the somewhat substantial challenges that come with remote schooling. Both she and her husband were out of jobs when the pandemic hit, and Hernandez remains out of work. The district provided them with two Wi-Fi routers to access the internet at home, but she said that they never work.
Referring to updated CDC guidelines that allow masked students to sit as close as three feet apart, Hernandez said, “I think they’re just trying to put as many kids as they can in one room. We already have so many [safety] concerns—now three feet is literally the same thing we had before the pandemic.”
LAUSD parent and Wilmington resident Alicia Baltazar said on the same panel, “We haven’t been heard when we’ve been saying that it’s not safe for our students to return back to classrooms. Our schools are not ready to reopen, our HVAC systems break down constantly, we don’t have the staff to do what we need to do to keep our students safe.”
UTLA and Reclaim Our Schools also point out the distinction between L.A. County case numbers and case numbers within the communities LAUSD serves, citing disproportionate risks to Black and brown low-income communities, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic. As South Gate resident Katy Meza told the Los Angeles Times, “I can try and teach [my son] his multiplication tables or fractions,” she said. “But we can’t get back our health or our lives.”
The Countdown to School Reopening on April 12th pic.twitter.com/wWaNmlGl5P
— Austin Beutner (@AustinLASchools) April 9, 2021
LAUSD is conducting a family survey to get a sense of what most parents are thinking in terms of sending their kids back for in-person instruction. Updated numbers released on Friday, April 9, show that of the roughly 70 to 80 percent of parents who participated in the survey, approximately half of them preferred in-person instruction for their elementary school children, while a smaller share—25 to 35 percent—preferred in-person for middle and high schoolers. National research by the Pew Research Center and USC have found public stances on reopening as correlative with race and income, with low-income people of color slightly more inclined toward remote learning.
LAUSD mom Bailey, a proponent of in-person instruction, said, “A lot of people in my community, they’re trying to survive during this pandemic, working two or three jobs to put food on their children’s table. They don’t have the time or energy to fight for their children’s educations when there are so many other pressing needs. UTLA is taking that silence as they must not want their children to go back to school.”
At the Ted Watkins Park rally in March, Women of Watts founder Lydia Friend said that she’d been contacted by many parents in her community who were seeking help to get schools to reopen to their children.
“They say it’s not safe, but in the housing projects and on the back streets, they’re outside every day playing together, on the same stoop,” Friend points out. “The same kids outside playing are the same ones sitting in the same classroom.”
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