LAUSD students will start their school year on August 18, but they won’t be heading back to physical classrooms. As California struggles against a dangerous coronavirus surge, superintendent Austin Beutner has confirmed that students will be sticking with online-only education for the time being.
Experts generally believe that most students learn better in a classroom setting and that the online education that LAUSD is currently able to provide may not result in the same level of learning advancement that could be achieved with in-person instruction. However, with the opening date just five weeks away and with pandemic conditions worsening, officials decided it was time to make the difficult call.
Beutner told the Los Angeles Times that he understands that keeping schools physically closed may cause problems for long-term education outcomes as well as for the daytime childcare needs of parents, but said that decision makers had to put public health concerns above all else.
“[W]hat we can’t do is turn our schools into some giant Petri dish and have irreparable health and life consequences for all of the school community,” he said.
District officials report that the financial burden of instituting robust health and safety protocols is beyond what the schools are currently able to afford. LAUSD was working on plans to reduce class sizes, provide physical distancing, and distribute face masks, but those measures are only one part of the response.
Offering regular testing and contact tracing for students, teachers, and staff—seen as a key element of keeping schools from becoming loci of new outbreaks that could quickly spread into the larger community—would cost an estimated $300 per person, per year, Beutner told the Times. The district has over 500,000 students and 75,000 employees, adding up to an additional $172,300,000 for the already-strapped district to cover.
The Department of Education has threatened to withhold any federal money from schools that don’t return to standard in-person schooling for the fall (though some have noted that actually withholding those funds might require an act of Congress, rather than unilateral executive action) but it remains unclear what, if any, additional financial resources would be made available to offset the costs associated with reopening.
Nonetheless, Beutner told the Times he hopes that federal and state funds make it possible to get LAUSD students back into classrooms at some point soon.
“The dollars pale in comparison to the importance schools will play in reopening what was the fifth-largest economy in the world.”