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LAUSD reopens playgrounds, but even swings and slides are complicated amid COVID-19

Second-graders play at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes
Second-graders play at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes on Nov. 5. LAUSD will reopen its playgrounds Monday, following the lead of many other school districts.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Unified on Monday reopened its playground equipment, following the lead of many other school districts and local city and county parks. Access will be limited to one class of students at a time, and the equipment will be sanitized regularly.

The closed equipment has been a sore spot for many parents, who complained that city and county playgrounds — with no coronavirus safeguards — were accessible, but their children faced unnecessary restrictions on their ability to play, exercise and socialize at campuses. They also noted that many other school districts were allowing children to use playground equipment.

In his weekly Monday broadcast, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner characterized playground access as the next logical move in a careful step-by-step progression to reopen campuses safely and build confidence in families with ongoing safety concerns. Elementary schools opened over a two-week period beginning April 12; middle and high schools reopened last week.

“We waited until we had welcomed young students back and made sure they were familiar with all of the safety protocols — wearing of masks, social distancing, hand-washing and staying in small cohorts — and we’re comfortable now that they can take these practices to the playground,” Beutner said.

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He acknowledged that the issue was important to families.

“When I visited schools last week to share this news, there were smiles all around,” he said. “The path to recovery includes the opportunity for youngsters to exercise and play outdoors in a way that’s safe and appropriate.”

One parent, who requested anonymity to protect her child’s privacy, provided a photo from last week to accompany her complaint about limits on physical activity, especially in light of the district’s regular testing of students and staff for the coronavirus.

“Here’s my first grade daughter ... sitting on a towel ... on cold asphalt for recess,” the parent wrote in an email. “She’s not allowed to move from that spot nor towel. Yet when she leaves her school ... she steps into the playground at the park next door where her life is seemingly in peril as she’s exposed to countless children with no trace of COVID testing. Which leads me to ask ... If the testing program for LAUSD is so robust, why all the caution?”

The critics of the closed playgrounds have included school board member Nick Melvoin, who has been urging senior officials to make the facilities accessible.

The playground issue illustrates the complex campus reopening decisions faced by district officials. Many families are chafing at safety restrictions they regard as unnecessary that have, in effect, cut in half the amount of time students can spend on campus in reopened classrooms. And at the middle and high school level, safety protocols have resulted in students spending their on-campus time in a single classroom with the same, small group of students, logging into online core academic classes — just as they would if they had remained at home.

Yet even with such protocols, the majority of L.A. Unified families are continuing to keep their children at home, with many citing safety as a fundamental concern.

“Amidst all of the progress in reopening schools lies a troubling fact. The portion of students from low-income families in high-needs communities returning to school lags well behind their peers from more affluent communities,” Beutner said in his broadcast remarks. “The continued absence of so many children from schools will compound the struggle many already face. If we truly believe in a greater push for equity in public schools, this is the challenge of the moment: How do we help families understand it’s safe for their child to be back in school, and how do we provide more time in a school classroom when students do return to help them make up for lost time?”

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At the elementary level, the district expected about 40% of students to return to campuses, but attendance has lagged even among families who said they were coming back. For the initial pilot group of 61 elementary schools, about 34% of students were expected back, but on April 19, the Monday after reopening, only 62% of those students were in class. A week later, the number had risen to 74%.

Beutner provided these attendance figures to The Times to emphasize the heavy lifting underway to get students on campus. And for Beutner, that means emphasizing the safety of playground equipment over providing immediate and unfettered access to it.

Custodial staff will use electrostatic misters and disinfectant to regularly sanitize the equipment — the same procedures used to clean frequently touched surfaces indoors. And students will be directed to wash their hands before and after using the equipment.

The district’s coronavirus testing program — which Beutner says is key to ensuring safety and building confidence — has faced logistical problems as schools have reopened. The testing effort had to shift toward private contractors and away from school nurses, who have returned to traditional duties. Many already split their time among multiple campuses.

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After families submit an initial pretest for students, the district manages the weekly testing through mobile clinics that move from campus to campus. But the contractor, Infiniti Health, did not have enough staff to handle the ramp-up, district officials said. As a result, a second contractor has quickly been brought in. Beutner declined to name the second company or provide the contracts.

The district also has reshuffled the leadership of the staff that was managing the program.

Officials emphasized that parents should not be alarmed — or feel they need to seek testing on their own — if the weekly on-campus testing falls behind schedule, as it has in places. Their children will not be barred from campus.

Parents have expressed a diversity of opinions about the coronavirus testing. For many, a less frequent testing schedule is a relief, while others feel less safe.

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A teacher at one school in South Los Angeles expressed concern after hearing that at his campus, the baseline tests would be considered valid for 14 days — rather than one week — and that the mobile testing unit would not make it to his school that week.

“That means that adults and children that may very well have COVID-19 but may not be showing symptoms will have complete access to our schools until at least next week, when the mobile testing sites are supposed to come to our school,” said the teacher, who did not want his name used. The area around this school has had a high incidence of COVID-19 and comparatively low vaccination rates.

“I find it extremely irresponsible for our schools to be opening under these conditions,” the teacher said.

The “big picture,” Beutner said, is that L.A. Unified is successfully carrying out the most ambitious school-based testing effort in the country. There is no evidence, he said, of an infection being passed from one person to another at a campus since the reopening.

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Playgrounds have been an area of angst and debate for much of the pandemic.

They closed briefly in some areas under a regional stay-at-home order during the deadly winter surge. But the state relented under pressure and allowed playgrounds to reopen in early December.

According to the updated state guidance at the time, “playgrounds may remain open to facilitate physically distanced personal health and wellness through outdoor exercise” — an about-face from previously announced rules, which stated that the facilities would be closed in regions where critical care services were strained due to COVID-19.

The closure of playgrounds had sparked particular backlash — with parents expressing outrage and confusion about why play areas were off-limits, while places such as malls were allowed to remain open with limited capacity.


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