LAUSD Schools Are Coming Back—but Who’s Going and What Will Classes Look Like?

The nation’s second-largest school district wrestles with an enduring virus and parental worry

When it comes to getting students in the nation’s second-largest school district back into the classroom, the best way to figure out what is happening and who is participating is with a math equation: 62+50+5=33.

Taken literally that is utter nonsense. Plug in a few additional factors and the fuzzy picture begins to come into focus: as the coronavirus pandemic is being wrestled under control, 62 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District families have filled out surveys indicating whether they intend to have their children resume on-campus instruction, or continue learning online. Of the elementary school respondents, 50 percent would opt for the in-person schooling happening five days a week.

If all other families remain online (non-responders automatically receive that designation), just 33 percent of elementary school students would return to campus. As the educational level goes higher the numbers go lower: just 21 percent of middle school students would be back on campus, and only 14 percent of high school students would leave their homes.

The numbers, provided by the LAUSD on Monday afternoon, could change as more parents fill out the survey. However, even at this stage they reveal a mighty challenge: Before the district can educate students, it is striving to educate parents and persuade them that schools can be a safe space.

It is yet another tall task for Superintendent Austin Beutner. In his weekly recorded video update on Monday, Beutner announced that 50 elementary schools and early education centers will begin to bring students back on April 12; those would function as a sort of test case, with the remainder of elementary schools reopening for in-person instruction a week later.

Middle and high schools would see students on campus later in April. The LAUSD academic year runs through June 11 (many private schools and some smaller districts have already reopened campuses).

The district has embarked on a massive campaign to disseminate information. A full-color, 16-page “Return to Campus Family Guide” has been mailed (and emailed) to LAUSD families. School principals have held Zoom sessions with parents about the latest (and quickly changing) details, and the district has hosted more than 40 online town hall-style forums. That includes one this past Sunday where Beutner appeared alongside a swath of religious leaders, many representing African-American churches in South Los Angeles.

“We’re just happy about the prospects of re-engaging, opening classrooms up,” Pastor J. Edgar Boyd of the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church said during the session. “We want to make sure parents feel as comfortable as you can possibly feel about your children re-entering public spaces.”

Achieving that level of comfort is made more difficult by the higher prevalence of the coronavirus in some of the lower income communities that LAUSD serves. These neighborhoods are often home to large numbers of Black and Latino families, with parents who hold jobs where working by Zoom is not an option. Worry runs particularly high in multi-generational households, Beutner noted.

“We see the greatest reluctance in the communities hardest hit by the virus to sending their children back to schools,” Beutner said Monday.

The superintendent’s mantra since campuses closed a year ago has been consistent: the aim is to open schools “as soon as possible and in the safest way possible.” A slow pace has generated some anger from parent groups saying children are being shortchanged by protracted distance learning.

Los Angeles County’s emergence this month from the state-set Purple Tier of coronavirus-mandated restrictions was a key step in the reopening process. Another tool is on-campus protocols.

“Our schools have in place the highest standards of COVID safety in the nation,” Beutner said in his Monday address. “We’ve upgraded the air filtration systems in every classroom, reconfigured school facilities to keep all at a school-appropriate distance, doubled the custodial staff and will provide weekly COVID testing.”

The key issue of a month ago appears to have been cleared. United Teachers Los Angeles and other powerful teachers unions across California set a line in the sand demanding that educators be fully vaccinated before they step in a classroom with kids. Beutner also made vaccinations a priority, and widespread pressure ultimately prompted state leaders to dedicate a supply of vaccines to school districts. The LAUSD has been providing some vaccinations to its employees. On Monday, Beutner said that 85 percent of school staff have been vaccinated, are scheduled to do so, or opted not to be inoculated.

Many students will stay home, but for those who return, the primary question is, what will school look like? The answer varies depending on grade. The experience, like everything else in the world, will be nothing like it was before COVID.

Elementary schools will be the closest facsimile of pre-coronavirus life, though class sizes will shrink to keep six feet of distance between students. Although the Centers for Disease Control recently said that three feet of distance can be safe in elementary school, LAUSD is sticking with the level of class size it negotiated with the UTLA.

The plan offers either morning or afternoon sessions (dubbed cohorts), with learning concentrated in three-hour chunks. Desks will be separated and kids will have individual, non-shareable supplies. Masks are required, walkways will be one-way, and restrooms may have some stalls or sinks closed to prevent close contact. Families will need to complete a daily student health check-in.

The town halls have highlighted the cleaning regimens that will be in place, including regular disinfecting of high-touch surfaces such as railings and nightly use of electrostatic cleaners. Beutner has taken pains to state that MERV-13 air filters, which he equates to an N-95 mask, have been installed in buildings across the district.

The five-day-a-week instruction in elementary schools surpasses the two- or three-day schedule some other districts across the country are offering. LAUSD is also providing pre- and after-school care, allowing working parents to have kids on campus all day.

The middle and high school set-up is different. Students arrive on campus two or three days each week, then spend most of their time in a single classroom with a teacher and other students. Much of the day will be spent with headphones on as they continue to take online classes, even if, say, their chemistry or history teacher is just down the hall.

It essentially trades Zoom at home for Zoom in a room at school. Beutner acknowledges that it is an imperfect solution, but maintains that 12 students together in one place provides more protection against a COVID outbreak than having kids go from class to class.

“We don’t believe it’s safe or appropriate to have 200-plus students and their teachers in a cohorted school, and that’s exactly what would happen if high schoolers participated in all of their six or seven classes in person,” he said.

It may be the plan more than the safety concerns sparking such a low number of high school students to choose in-person learning. Media reports have cited parents dissatisfied with the prospect of their children heading back to campus but not getting the interaction or instruction they have missed for more than a year.

Beutner acknowledged the point, but touted the social-emotional benefits of seeing some friends and teachers, and being able to rely on consistent internet service, among other things.

With recognition that many students have suffered from learning loss, the LAUSD survey also queried parents on their feelings about summer school classes or extending the 2021-2022 academic year by up to ten days. That included a question about starting school as early as August 3.

RELATED: Parents Protest L.A.’s School Reopening Plan at Two Weekend Rallies

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