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Should L.A. Unified close schools to half a million students? The coronavirus debate rages

LAUSD students
Students at Rudecinda Sepulveda Dodson Middle School.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On Facebook and group chats, the rumors are spreading.

With more cases of the novel coronavirus being confirmed daily, will L.A. Unified School District close its 860-some campuses this week, or next week, or not at all? Should it follow in the footsteps of the universities that are rapidly moving to online learning or the K-12 districts in Northern California and across the country that have shuttered as they have confirmed their first cases of the virus?

The answer, as of Thursday afternoon, was no. Despite mounting cries for LAUSD to close, officials said it would not.

Still, the district has been preparing for that step. Schools are engaging in contingency planning that includes granting the superintendent broad emergency powers, canceling large events and planning for lessons delivered on TV. The district also has two online platforms: a system through which teachers and students can communicate and a separate system of self-contained online courses.

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To date, no coronavirus case has been linked to an L.A. public school, although there are confirmed cases elsewhere in the county that have spread through the community without a clear origin. Public health and school officials said say they plan to keep schools open unless a confirmed case reaches a campus.

Nonetheless, the head of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents about 30,000 L.A. Unified employees, demanded the district shut down campuses during a news conference on Thursday evening.

“We are calling for the rapid, accelerated and humane closure of all schools in L.A.,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said. Experience in other countries, he said, has shown that limiting the reach of the virus by closing schools “actually slows the spread, flattens out the spread and makes sure that healthcare providers are not crushed with an overwhelming demand.”

He acknowledged that additional planning might be required. Many students rely on L.A. Unified for meals during the school day. Those considerations, though serious, have to take a back seat to public health priorities, UTLA leaders said.

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The union also called for an expansion of the social safety net through such measures as stipends so parents could stay at home with their children, extended sick leave to cover the incubation period of the coronavirus illness and funding to cover the cost of testing and treatment. More broadly, the union is calling for “debt forgiveness” to prevent families from financial hardship caused by the loss of jobs or work hours related to the crisis.

“We are only as protected collectively as the most vulnerable person is protected,” Caputo-Pearl said.

Many parents agreed on the call to close schools. More than 19,000 people had signed a Change.org petition to close all schools in the district because of the coronavirus. “Let us not wait for an individual to test positive but make sure we close schools before that happens,” the petition urged Thursday.

Also on Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that 43 school districts across three counties in that state would be closed for the next six weeks. This followed similar announcements from Ohio and Maryland.

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In the Los Angeles area, some private schools have announced campus closures and a transition to online learning, including Campbell Hall in Studio City, Harvard-Westlake’s two L.A. campuses and Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena. Also, the school district that serves Santa Monica and Malibu announced that it would close Friday and Monday for a deep cleaning and staff meetings after “a community member with children in our schools” was exposed to coronavirus, according to a release from Supt. Ben Drati.

The Los Angeles Unified school board is scheduled to meet in a closed session on Friday for a status report from L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner.

Board President Richard Vladovic said Thursday it was important to rely on the advice of health officials in making the call on whether to close schools. “The prudent decision is to take direction from the doctors and the healthcare providers that happen to know,” he said. “I can’t second-guess a pandemic and how it’s spread. If there’s ever a doubt, the safety of children will come first.”

Officials from the governor on down have avoided calling for closing schools, citing the hardships for families, the difficulty in providing academic services and even the school meals that children depend on. But Vladovic acknowledged there was widespread debate among parents and employees about what was best.

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“I’m very sensitive to that, and I’m in that group that is very susceptible, and I know that many of our employees are as well,” said Vladovic, who is 75 and has battled health issues in recent years.

So far, L.A. County has been taking cues from Singapore, which did not close schools en masse but screened people for illness and had strict protocols for who could enter schools, said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, at a news conference Thursday.

The district, she said, serves many parents with “very limited income, who don’t get sick leaves,” who often are working multiple jobs and can’t necessarily put kids in daycare. Schools should be kept open if they can function safely, Ferrer said, but sick people need to stay away.

As the nation’s second-largest school district, LAUSD serves about half a million students, eight in 10 of whom rely on free or reduced-price lunches and 18,000 of whom are homeless. L.A. Unified school board member Nick Melvoin said the decision on whether to close was therefore a hard one. Plus, he said, the district’s actions can create a domino effect, putting pressure on other large urban school districts to shut down, too.

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The federal government has given California a waiver to allow meal distribution to students even if school is canceled, but that could still present logistical challenges.

“They’re relying on us for meals, for child care and I also think from a public health concern,” Melvoin said. If schools close, parents who have to go to work may be forced to take their children with them. Also, children in middle school and high school would likely congregate in public areas anyway, as teenagers tend to do.

“The school environment is one we can control right now,” Melvoin said Thursday afternoon.

School nurse Stephanie Yellin-Mednick said she’s been inundated with questions and dealt with many sick children at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies. But it’s the seasonal flu, not the coronavirus, and so far, absences have not spiked beyond typical levels.

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Ferrer said a clear tipping point for closing a school would be if a person with infection was identified at that campus. A complication, said Vladovic, is the interconnection among schools. Siblings attend different campuses; children are bused from one neighborhood to another; employees come from all parts of the city.

“There are so many connections in the district. I’m trying to figure out how you isolate something to one, two, three, four or five schools. You don’t,” Vladovic said. “I think at some point, the closing of schools is inevitable.”

UTLA Elementary Vice President Gloria Martinez said Thursday that some teachers are anxious, but mainly because they haven’t been reassured that district officials have planned properly for managing school closures.

Some parents have already started keeping their kids at home. On a Facebook group started during last year’s strike, Parents Supporting Teachers, families are sharing resources for at-home learning.

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“For those parents who have said to me, ‘I don’t feel comfortable sending my kids to school,’ I have said I’m ... going to do everything I can to make sure absences during this period are excused,” Melvoin said.

L.A. Unified isn’t the only district to close large events; Long Beach Unified announced a similar policy Thursday. Elsewhere in L.A. County, schools are closing temporarily so they can prepare for online instruction. Las Virgenes Unified, for example, will close for two days next week for “staff in-service time to prepare for the likelihood of a district-wide closure,” the district’s Supt. Dan Stepenosky said in a letter to families Thursday.

State funding, which accounts for most of the money that goes to California public schools, is doled out based on how many students attend school each day. In the case of a pandemic like this, schools can seek to recover funding if they close schools, as long as they do so under the direction of public health agencies.

The California Department of Education’s guidance to schools notes that “closing a school simply as a precaution” may mean the district will not qualify for such a waiver, and the school could incur “a penalty for failure to offer the statutorily required instructional days and/or minutes.”

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Melvoin said he would push for LAUSD to receive funding from the state regardless of what happened with school closings.

Emma Alvarez Gibson, whose son attends Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, said the possibility of lost funding wasn’t a good enough reason to put children and their families at risk. She believes there’s not enough soap or hand sanitizer at her son’s school and that efforts to keep students apart are logistically unfeasible on such campuses.

“I’m not sure how lunch period, nutrition period and however many passing periods they have ... I’m not sure how that’s not a large event,” Alvarez Gibson said.

Her son has been attending school, Gibson said, but she will likely pull him out after Thursday.

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“They are not safe as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.


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