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Less than half of expected L.A pupils returned in first week; then numbers improved

First-graders escort Supt. Austin Beutner in visit to Canterbury Elementary.
First-grade students Scarlett Palafox, 7, left, and Haley Tapia, 6, escort LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner and Principal Christopher Clarke, far right, during a visit last week to Canterbury Avenue Elementary School.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Fewer than half of elementary school students who were expected to return for in-person classes showed up during the first week that campuses reopened in L.A. Unified, but numbers improved significantly the second week, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner announced Monday.

Beutner also released data indicating that, over roughly the last three weeks, about 1 in every 1,000 district-administered coronavirus tests came back positive among students and staff. Those who test positive for the virus are not allowed on campus or are sent home if already on campus. The district also follows up with contact tracing.

Middle and high schools begin to welcome students back to campus on Tuesday. About 1 in 4 middle school students is expected back and about 1 in 5 high school students, according to recent district figures.

Early last week the superintendent had declined to provide attendance figures at the 61 elementary schools that were the first to open to students the week of April 12. The district delayed the release of attendance figures until Beutner’s Monday briefing.

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It turns out that the figures for the first week were much lower than expected.

On April 15, 3,896 of 8,500 expected students — about 45% — were in class at the 61 elementary campuses.

A week later the figures for these schools had improved considerably. About 1,000 additional students had been signed up to return to campus and a total of 7,478 were in class on April 21, working out to an attendance rate of about 79%. The district has not released the total enrollment at these 61 schools, which also would include families who chose to continue learning remotely from home for the entire school week.

“It’s going to be a gradual process like this as families see how it’s working and hear from friends and neighbors about their child’s experience in schools,” Beutner said in remarks prepared for his weekly Monday broadcast. “COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on many families in the communities we serve and created real fears about the virus.”

He added that among the 500 students and 50 staff members at Brooklyn Avenue Elementary in East Los Angeles, two students have lost parents to COVID, six have lost grandparents and two staff members have lost parents.

The district did not release attendance information related to 11 early education centers that also opened the week of April 12. And it did not release first-week-of-school figures for the remainder of elementary schools, which opened last week. There are 457 elementary schools and primary centers in the district.

Across the school system about 39% of elementary school students were expected back on campus based on choices made by parents.

Beutner and other district officials have enthusiastically urged more families to return, with posts on social media and at every public appearance.

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“The opportunity gaps for children from families who are struggling to get by will only worsen if they’re not back in schools with their peers from more affluent communities,” Beutner said.

The return rate has varied sharply from campus to campus. At Warner Avenue Elementary in Westwood, about 95% of students have chosen to return. In other communities — where most families are low-income and Black or Latino — the numbers indicating a preference to return appear to fall as low as about 25%.

The district is trying to be as flexible as possible in giving families the option to change their minds about whether to be online full time or to return to campus as part of a hybrid schedule — which combines on-campus and online instruction.

Many families continue to have safety concerns that are keeping them online. Other parents have not submitted coronavirus test results in time to be allowed back on campus. In some cases, processing delays have kept students out of class for several days, according to parents and staff at several schools. In other cases, parents have objected to having their children tested and those students have been barred from campus.

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The mandatory tests are not required by health authorities and are a subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

Beutner said the latest test results justify the district’s safety approach.

The district’s testing program has tabulated 105 employees and 196 students as positive for a coronavirus infection over the last three weeks. That adds up to 301 infections out of “more than 300,000 tests,” Beutner said.

The district did not provide the dates of the testing period or the precise number of tests.

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Most cases identified on a campus have been related to athletics, Beutner said, “in part because they’ve been participating in the ongoing testing for the longest time. Nearly 24,000 high schoolers are participating in a variety of programs for more than a month. Their families are all aware of the risks but have decided, on balance, they’re comfortable.”

The testing on campus has identified 31 athletes, six students at elementary schools and four adults with the virus.

“They’ve been isolated at home, and we are preventing the spread in our classrooms and athletic fields,” Beutner said, “Our goal is to keep the virus from spreading in schools.”

“So far,” he added, “it’s working as no cases of the virus have been linked to each other or further cases at schools.”

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Under district rules, students must submit to a test in the week prior to their scheduled return. After that, testing is required every week, although on Monday Beutner, for the first time, suggested there might be some wiggle room to that timing.

“Our goal is regular, weekly tests, but on a few occasions it might be eight or even 14 days between tests instead of five or seven,” he said. There’s no bright line in science between these two scenarios.”


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