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L.A. schools will start Aug. 18, whether campuses are open or not

LAUSD volunteer Courtney Johnson delivers food to drivers at Dorsey High School.
LAUSD volunteer Courtney Johnson delivers food to motorists in March at Dorsey High School, which is among the campuses closed due to the pandemic.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles schools will start fall classes on Aug. 18, but no decision has been made on whether campuses will reopen by that date amid ongoing concerns over the coronavirus crisis, Supt. Austin Beutner said Monday.

Education officials in L.A. and across California are wrestling with how and when to bring the state’s 6.1 million students back to campuses that have been shuttered since mid-March — as they continue to adjust to the difficulties of distance learning and move to strengthen online summer school offerings.

How many students can be in one classroom? Will staggered schedules be necessary? What happens when a student or family member shows signs of illness? What will be required to keep campuses sanitized? Will students and teaches have to wear masks? These are among key questions confronting school leaders.

In his remarks Monday, Beutner noted that it’s difficult to set a timetable for reopening campuses.

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“The timing remains uncertain because the science is still uncertain,” Beutner said. “At a minimum, a comprehensive system of testing and contact tracing will need to be in place and the implications of the testing widely understood before schools can reopen.”

The district is in discussions with state and local health authorities and working with a team of UCLA experts in infectious diseases, virology, epidemiology and testing to guide them on reopening scenarios.

Such guidance is “critical,” he said, “because it will be the science, and only the science, which can provide a foundation for the safe return of our school community.”

The L.A. County Office of Education has convened a special task force of superintendents to build a framework for reopening campuses. The group met for the first time last week.

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Local public health officials have discussed with district officials the possibility of students and staff wearing masks when schools reopen — raising as many questions as it answered for Alexander Cherniss, superintendent of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.

“We are a 10,000 student district,” he wrote in a letter to L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. “Your recommendation that everyone must wear masks would make us burn through 50,000 masks a week. That’s 5M masks a week in L.A. County schools. We have no resources to make this kind of purchase, not to mention all your other supply recommendations.”

He also questioned the practicality of seating students significantly farther apart.

“The 6-foot distance (radius of 6 feet) provides for 8 people in a class,” Cherniss said. “And little kids can’t do that. Nor can special-ed kids with aides.”

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He noted, too, that secondary students change classrooms throughout the day: “Must we disinfect between every class?”

The speculation about reopening increased when California Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested schools may need to begin early — as soon as late July — to address learning gaps caused by the closing of campuses across the state in March. His suggestion received a mixed reaction — with some educators worried that getting ready for an early start could impede summer-school efforts.

Union leaders expressed concern about putting their members in harm’s way.

“We are eager for students to get back to campus, but we need to ensure that it is safe to do so and that all the precautions and plans to protect students and staff are in place,” said Max Arias, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents about 30,000 nonteaching employees in L.A. Unified.

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“California has led the way on flattening the curve of this deadly pandemic by prioritizing people’s health and safety,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “We urge our leaders to stay the course.”

For the remainder of the current school year, state officials have ordered school systems to provide distance learning — and the state’s Department of Education has offered examples of “good practice” but did not set statewide standards.

And while the state and federal governments have provided emergency aid, school district leaders say it’s not enough to fund either the ongoing pandemic response or the challenge of paying for a fall reopening. L.A. Unified is confronting an estimated $200 million in emergency coronavirus costs alone.

Some school district officials have expressed frustration about the lack of state guidance thus far about reopening.

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“Without question, we have a desire for students to occupy our classrooms and schoolyards once again, but only when it is safe and instruction, resource allocation, school funding, required negotiable agreements with our bargaining units, and regulatory relief are all considered as part of a comprehensive ‘back-to school’ plan,” said South Pasadena Unified Supt. Geoff Yantz in a letter to parents last week.

Yantz characterized the current recommendations from the state as “not sensible, practical, or sustainable solutions for school districts within California.”

“California’s public school system does not have the infrastructure or appropriate regulations to support a comprehensive, all-in, distance learning program for all students,” he said.

State officials have acknowledged that many school districts and many families are poorly situated to carry out effective learning at home. To that end, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond on Monday called on leaders of major internet providers to provide free guest access to all California students.

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While these companies have offered temporary free access to help students, advocates have complained that these offers entail unnecessary hurdles and potential hidden costs.

Schools also are coping with the community disappointment over canceled graduation ceremonies. Beutner met recently with a panel of students to discuss ways to commemorate the graduation milestone without gathering in groups — at least not until it is safe to do so.

Beutner also said an expanded summer school would help students make up for disruption caused by the March 16 closure of the nation’s second-largest school system. The summer-school session will not be taking place on campus.

“Our plan remains to finish the school year with online instruction and offer summer school to every student,” Beutner said. “We’ve made no decisions about the opening of school facilities by [Aug. 18] and will not until the science and health authorities tell us it is safe and appropriate to do so.”

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The current school year will end June 12 for L.A. Unified. The summer session will begin shortly thereafter, although Beutner did not specify the date.

Summer school has been gradually and substantially diminished over recent years due to budget cuts, but Beutner said it would again be available to every student.

He said the summer session would have various offerings. One will be “a very focused, intensive set of classes for a small number of students who are having the greatest challenge in their studies.”

There also will be foundational literacy and math lessons available at all grade levels, with a particular emphasis on students who are learning English.

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In addition, the district intends to offer enrichment classes with an underlying academic focus. As an example, he cited a collaboration between district teachers and the guitar company Fender to create guitar and ukulele lessons.

“Woven into the lessons will be math, literacy and project-based work,” Beutner said.


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