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L.A. teachers will spend more live time with students amid uncertainty over school reopening

Michael Gearin conducts 8th grade class from his garage for students at Bridges Span School in Wilmington.
Eighth-grade teacher Michael Gearin conducts class from his garage for students of Bridges Span School in Wilmington.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

With children mired in distance learning and many struggling academically, Los Angeles teachers will take on more live online interaction with students next semester, under an agreement announced Friday. Also under the deal, school nurses will conduct campus-based coronavirus tests.

The pact between the teachers union and the Los Angeles Unified School District was essential for the nation’s second-largest school system; the agreement’s predecessor would have expired Dec. 31. And, based on current infection rates, a return to campus in January is almost impossible under state health guidelines.

The revised weekly schedule calls for a minimum of 30 additional minutes of live interaction with students on Monday — making that day a closer match to other weekdays, when the minimum length of daily live instruction ranges from 60 minutes to 170 minutes, depending on the grade level and a school’s scheduling format.

Many teachers already had been providing more time with students than the specified minimums. As before, the new schedule also includes learning time that does not have to be live and interactive.

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The new work plan also incorporates 30 additional daily minutes of office hours for students and family on Tuesday through Friday, which can be scheduled flexibly for mutual convenience. Some office hours already had been built into the schedule, but this expansion — which, again, varies by grade and a school’s format — is a significant expansion.

“This progress in online instruction reflects the shared learning of all who work in schools about the need to maximize the interaction between teachers and students and their families,” Los Angeles schools Supt. Austin Beutner said in a statement.

“We are gratified to reach an agreement to extend the distance learning agreement, which is what our students need right now,” said Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “In the face of the upheaval we are all dealing with, educators, students and families need stability most of all.”

The new side letter to the teachers’ contract goes at least part way to addressing complaints from critics — including many parents and some community groups who have called for increased daily live interaction between students and teachers.

“This agreement still leaves Los Angeles Unified with less learning time, less support for teachers, less partnership with families and less focus on racial equity than other large California school districts,” said Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, a local advocacy group that has provided support for a lawsuit filed on behalf of families who contend that the district is violating their legal right to an education.

There also are parents who would settle for nothing less than a return to full-time in-person instruction. Others support remaining in distance learning, while some worry that current practices force students to remain online for too long, especially younger ones. No strategy has emerged that offers full academic support and an elimination of risk for school employees and the families they serve. Making strides in that direction has become more complicated as an alarming COVID-19 surge stretches local healthcare resources past their capacity.

The pandemic closed campuses in March, but schools in counties adjacent to L.A. were able to open in the fall, when local infection rates were lower. Campuses that opened during that period can remain open, but not every school system did so. And some districts that reopened have closed their campuses once more.

L.A. County schools were not able to reopen to all students because virus transmission rates never dropped low enough. But campuses can open under waivers to serve students in kindergarten through second grade. And schools can bring in students with special needs, at up to 25% of enrollment capacity.

L.A. Unified, with about 465,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, has moved cautiously. By early December, the school district had provided in-person instructional services to about 3,000 students, and about 1,700 athletes were coming in for outdoor, physically distanced conditioning, according to information released this week.

Citing the latest virus surge, Beutner suspended all in-person services two weeks before winter break, a move the teachers union supported.

The new agreement will cover the remainder of the 2020-21 school year if necessary. It also sets Jan. 24 as the deadline for reaching an agreement on what on-campus instruction will look like when it resumes. A union representative said January is out of the question for a return to campus.

A recent district survey of employees represented by the teachers union indicated that 24% are prepared to return to schools; 55% said they are able to go back but prefer to remain in distance learning; 18% said an underlying health condition would make it potentially unsafe for them to return; 2% said they are 65 or older and would explore continuing to work remotely; and 1% said they intend to apply for unpaid leave.

The survey was conducted Nov. 30 through Dec. 6, with 26,305 responses, well over two-thirds of union members. The union represents teachers, librarians, counselors and nurses.

Under the new pact, nurses have to help carry out the district’s testing program. They will receive an extra $3.50 an hour for such work completed in person on a campus and additional pay when the work extends beyond normal hours.


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