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L.A. County schools can reopen small in-person classes for their neediest students on Sept. 14

 Labels on desks designate where students can sit when classrooms reopen.
Labels on desks designate where students can sit with respect to social distancing at a Los Angeles Unified School District campus.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Schools in Los Angeles County can reopen small classes beginning on Sept. 14 for students with disabilities and English-language learners, a move to safely provide in-person instruction and services to children whose education has deeply suffered since campuses closed in March.

Small groups of students who have individualized education plans, require instruction for English as a second language, or must have an assessment to determine their needs will be able to come to campus for services, as long as their schools comply with the county’s reopening protocols, the health department announced Wednesday.

“This will get children who are in the most need of in-person learning back into the classroom,” said Los Angeles County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis during a news briefing.

The county said schools must maintain small, stable cohorts of no more than 12 students and two supervisors in order to ensure the safety of teachers and students. Schools must submit an operational plan to the county Department of Public Health and adhere to reopening protocols.

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With Wednesday’s announcement, attention turned immediately to the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest and one of 80 school systems in L.A. County. About 13%, or 64,500, of its students were classified as having a significant disability in 2019. About 123,500 students are learning to speak English proficiently.

L.A. school board member Nick Melvoin said he hoped the district could follow up quickly and safely.

“Even with big improvements to distance learning since the spring, it’s still a struggle for our most vulnerable students, particularly those with disabilities and English learners,” Melvoin said. “In light of the county’s revised guidelines, I’m eager for the district to explore how to safely offer in-school services for these students.”

State officials opened this door for limited on-campus activity last week. But L.A. County was not required to permit this step, especially because the county’s rate of COVID-19 infection remains in the state’s purple tier — the worst category, indicating widespread disease transmission.

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State guidelines have offered hope that elementary schools could reopen through a waiver application process. More than 200 such waivers have been approved across California, mostly for private and faith-based schools, including dozens in Orange and San Diego counties.

But L.A. County health officials, who must approve waivers in conjunction with the state, said Wednesday that this option remains closed for local private and public schools.

Special education has been inconsistent at best since campuses statewide shut down in March. The state has mandated that school districts continue to provide special education to students with disabilities as required by federal laws, but has waived timelines that allow students to receive assessments and services quickly. Parents, advocates and educators say many students with disabilities are not receiving the education or services to which they are entitled.

L.A. Unified officials, along with districts throughout the state, have acknowledged the difficulty of providing help to students who require close contact, direct feedback or hands-on services, including speech therapy, hearing evaluation and orthopedic manipulation. School districts have developed procedures that can be conducted online, but there are limitations.

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According to state data, there were about 260,000 English learners in districts across L.A. County in the 2019-20 school year, and 190,000 students enrolled in special education in 2018-19, the most recent year for which data were available.

L.A. County Office of Education Supt. Debra Duardo said Wednesday’s announcement was “very encouraging.” She added that “our students with special needs and English Learners are among the most vulnerable during this time of distance learning.”

While the county’s rules are meant to prioritize safety, they don’t guarantee that a school system will be ready to open for these small classes. L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner has noted in past statements that he, like many district employees, would fall into a high-risk category and that he wouldn’t ask employees to take a risk he would be unwilling to take himself.

Another unknown on Wednesday was the extent to which a district’s labor groups would have to sign off on plans to bring students back on campus. L.A.'s teachers union — and unions in many other school systems — only recently completed an agreement on the rules for distance-only learning. Rules for a return to campus will require a separate round of negotiations.

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But the move raised hopes among advocates for students with special needs.

“It’s a positive step that the county is opening the door for students with high needs for whom distance learning isn’t working to safely receive instruction and services in person on campus,” said Lisa Mosko, director of advocacy for special education and educational rights with the group Speak Up.

Michael Agyin, a behavior therapist and disability advocate who works with L.A. Unified students with autism, cerebral palsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said the need for hands-on services is urgent.

“While we tried to do some of these things over Zoom, you really can’t replace the professional services that these kids need,” Agyin said.

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Children also struggled to adapt to learning in a new environment, he said.

“Many students, especially with autism, thrive on routine,” he explained. “One parent still had to drive her child to school so he would stay calm.” The child would get dressed up, get his backpack, ride to school, see the school, then return home and set up for class on Zoom.

Still, although he said he’d seen some students “backtrack,” Agyin said he was also wary of returning to campuses more quickly than it would be safe to do so.

Long Beach Unified, the second-largest district in L.A. County with 85 schools and roughly 70,000 students, is discussing whether it will be ready to open by Sept. 14 for students with special needs.

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“We’re reviewing the guidance carefully and will confer with Long Beach Health and Human Services,” said Chris Eftychiou, the district’s public information officer, in an emailed statement. “We’ll keep you posted if we intend to provide in-person instruction at some point.”

The Las Virgenes Unified School District, on the county’s western end, intends to embrace the new guidelines and offer on-campus services to these groups of students as soon as legally permitted, said Supt. Dan Stepenosky.

He said the immediate focus would be to help students in ways that could not be well managed via Zoom or other forms of distance learning. The district, he said, would evaluate how soon these students could return safely for all their learning activities.

“We want to crawl before we walk and walk before we run,” said Stepenosky, who added that parents in his district are eager for all students to return to campus.

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Times staff writer Andrew J. Campa contributed to this report.


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