L.A. teachers union pact mandates masks and coronavirus tests for all this fall
Masks will remain on for students and staff at Los Angeles schools this fall, and coronavirus testing will continue for all, under a tentative agreement announced Thursday between district officials and the teachers union.
The mask mandate would continue regardless of whether employees or students are vaccinated, with rare potential exceptions for students with disabilities. And the coronavirus testing would take place at least once every two weeks. That’s a possible step back from the current practice, which has required testing every week since campuses gradually reopened in April.
Daily screening for symptoms also would be required for students, staff and visitors before entering a campus. This screening has typically consisted of a temperature check and a verbal self-affirmation of good health. The district also has an online Daily Pass that allows for the same affirmation, but people haven’t been required to use it.
“The agreement maintains the necessary COVID-19 protocols that have proven to keep students, staff, families, and the education community safe,” United Teachers Los Angeles said in a release.
District officials emphasized that, even before the agreement, they had committed to ongoing testing and mask-wearing — pending further guidance from health authorities.
The pact addresses what had been a major unknown for the families of 465,000 kindergarten-through-12th grade students in the nation’s second-largest school system: What would the on-campus experience be like in the fall?
On this question, district officials had substantial leverage — because on July 1, state law will revert largely to pre-pandemic rules, requiring schools to offer a full-time, on-campus schedule or risk losing substantial state funding.
When it comes to safety issues, both the union and the L.A. Unified School District have moved cautiously — and largely in step — over the course of the pandemic, which resulted in campuses closing in March 2020.
Campuses reopened more slowly than in many districts and with stricter safety measures, including some that were unpopular. Middle and high school students, for example, have had to remain online — just as they would have at home — and stay in one classroom throughout the instructional day. That will no longer be the case starting with summer school.
But the precautions have yielded what the district and union praise as a crucial success: No reported cases of transmission of the virus on campus from one student to another or from a student to an adult.
By the time campuses opened, all staff members had the opportunity to achieve maximum vaccine immunity, and community transmission rates also had plummeted. Also, few students returned at many schools, also lessening the disease risk.
One measure in force this spring has been a rule requiring six feet of distance between desks. That rule led to smaller classes, about half the usual size, because of space limitations — and a half-time on-campus schedule. However, starting in summer, the separation will be three feet, which is essentially how far desks are separated in a traditional classroom. What still may not work, however, is the once-common practice of pushing desks together or grouping students at tables.
The new agreement does not specifically address a three-foot, six-foot or other standard. Instead, it specifies following “the most current” guidelines of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, which has endorsed the three-foot standard. And should these guidelines change, “either party may reopen bargaining.”
In a letter sent Thursday to employees, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner emphasized another aspect of the agreement.
“We will not be displacing any teachers at school sites this coming school year,” Beutner wrote. “Teachers will be able to remain at their current schools, and students, school staff and families will all benefit. This continuity at schools will help to reinforce a sense of community while providing the best possible academic foundation for students.”
Teacher displacement occurs when enrollment is too low to maintain current staffing. In recent years, district enrollment has declined about 2% a year, a drop that is expected to continue. At some campuses with low enrollment, some grades may be blended into so-called combination classes, but teachers with such an assignment will receive additional pay.
Hand sanitizer will be ubiquitous.
In the tentative deal, the district also affirmed its commitment to cleaning all classrooms, restrooms and workspaces “regularly” and making sure that “all high-touch surfaces are disinfected daily.” Separately, the Los Angeles Board of Education has authorized increasing custodial services by 25%, although that would still leave custodial staffing below what the district has defined as the industry standard.
Moreover, all campuses would have a COVID-19 Compliance Task Force, which would meet at least twice a month.
The agreement also includes details about the class day for students whose families decide to keep them home in the fall. Elementary students would have at least three hours of live online instruction every school day. Middle and high school students would have three 70-minute periods per day. Each period must provide at least 40 minutes of live online instruction. Online programs will not be available at every campus but will be provided centrally at each of the more than 40 “communities of schools.”
The agreement, which must be ratified by union members, would be in effect through June 30, 2022.
“As we close out this year, we mourn those we have lost, we uplift the lessons we have learned, and we turn the page forward to in-person learning communities, five days a week for the 2021-2022 school year,” union President Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement, “unless conditions worsen.”
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