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Newsletter: The back-to-school dilemma

A sign at the closed Short Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Parents and teachers across the U.S. see a “slate of bad options” as coronavirus risk hovers over classroom learning.

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The Back-to-School Dilemma

“Back to school.” In pre-pandemic days, it was the most mundane of catchphrases. Now, those words are a signifier of existential dread, a political lightning rod, a confounding multiple-choice question that has no real right answer, but plenty of wrong ones.

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Many parents, especially working ones, are desperate to get their kids back into the classroom. President Trump, eager to revive a devastated U.S. economy, is demanding that schools open for in-person instruction.

But a pandemic is raging, particularly in the country’s South and West, and no one is sure how to keep students, teachers and school workers — and all those who come into contact with them — safe.

School administrators are scrambling, trying to figure out rules on everything from facial coverings to plexiglass separators if students do physically return, and how to manage months of online learning if they do not. Any guidelines agreed upon now could change before the school bells ring.

And then there’s the politics at every level. Trump and his allies have sought to frame the argument in terms that essentially ignore urgent public health concerns, asserting that the social and developmental perils of missed learning outweigh the risks. Frustrated critics say it is deeply irresponsible to try to strong-arm school districts into in-person openings without taking the scale and severity of area outbreaks into account.

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Florida, which has more than 300,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 4,510 deaths, has issued a directive requiring all school districts to offer in-person instruction. California, which has more than 350,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 7,300 deaths, says all campuses should be prepared to offer distance learning instead of in-person instruction if coronavirus conditions don’t improve.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, has already said its campuses will not reopen at the start of the school year to protect students’ safety. But that could only reinforce some of the deep disparities faced by students of color. More than 50,000 Black and Latino middle and high school LAUSD students did not regularly participate in the school system’s main platform for virtual classrooms after campuses closed in March, according to a report by LAUSD analysts.

More Top Coronavirus Headlines

San Francisco’s director of public health said the rate of transmission of the coronavirus continued to climb in the Bay Area and the city would not move forward with reopening.

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Ventura County is seeing an increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases among farmworkers.

— For the first time in 75 years, the Rose Parade has been canceled. It was originally scheduled for Jan. 1, 2021. Parade officials said the football game will still happen, but the spread of the coronavirus made a parade too risky.

— Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced that he’s the first governor in the United States to test positive for the coronavirus and that he is isolating at home.

For more, sign up for Coronavirus Today, a special edition of The Times’ Health and Science newsletter.

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Is More Relief on the Way?

After initial resistance from some Republicans, Congress is inching closer to an agreement to extend at least some of the $600-a-week federal unemployment insurance subsidy approved this spring to help American workers hurt by the coronavirus crisis.

When they return next week to begin talks on another major relief bill, lawmakers face a tight deadline to renew the popular benefit, which expires at the end of the month. The recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases in many states, including California, is providing a political tailwind for Democrats who want to extend the money.

Although some in the GOP remain adamantly opposed to extending the money and argue it discourages some workers from returning to their jobs, a few Republicans — including some White House officials — have begun floating the idea of approving a reduced or more restricted federal subsidy to assist the nearly 50 million American workers who have applied for unemployment insurance since the pandemic began.

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Something Everyone Can Agree On?

Congress doesn’t agree on much these days, but it is on the verge of passing the Great American Outdoors Act, which would increase the money available from federal energy fees to purchase property and to tackle a maintenance backlog at existing public lands after years of budget cuts.

The Senate passed the bill 73-25 in mid-June; the House is planning to vote next week; and Trump has said he’ll sign it into law. The prospects for passage — the result of an unusual election-year alignment of political interests — mark a major victory for environmental advocates and a sharp contrast with the general stalemate on legislation in Washington.

The cash that the bill would provide would benefit public spaces of every size, not just the vast expanses of California’s deserts, but also parks and green spaces in the heart of Los Angeles.

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A Disturbance in the Force

In May, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale compared the president’s reelection effort to the Death Star from “Star Wars” — an odd comparison considering the Death Star’s connection to an evil empire and its spectacular demise in the film series.

Now, Trump, who is falling further behind Joe Biden in polls as he struggles to contain the growing coronavirus pandemic and recession, has replaced Parscale with another longtime aide, deputy campaign manager Bill Stepien. Advisors said Stepien had effectively taken over operations in recent weeks, as Parscale lost the trust of Trump and his inner circle. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, remains the guiding force in all strategy decisions.

Advisors have been trying to get Trump to focus more on the economy and project a sense of control. But in recent weeks, he has appeared frustrated, giving disjointed speeches in the Rose Garden and making grand gestures that have backfired.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

On this day in 1966, firefighters were battling a stubborn brush fire in the Angeles National Forest. According a story in the next day’s Times, the fire spanned 35 acres at the juncture of three canyons. The blaze broke out shortly after 1 p.m. on July 16. It took 250 firefighters, seven hours, four helicopters and 50,000 gallons of a fire-retardant solution to contain the fire by that night.

Brush fire in 1966 spreads just off Angeles Crest Highway
July 16, 1966: Los Angeles County Fireman Earl Wyat, right, directs a water-carrying helicopter off the ground in effort to halt flames as brush fire spreads just off Angeles Crest Highway at Lady Bug Canyon.
(Don Cormier / Los Angeles Times)

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CALIFORNIA

The charges against four social workers connected with the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend, will be dropped today, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said.

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— Firefighters are contending with “extreme” fire behavior as they work to contain a wind-whipped wildfire west of Coalinga in Fresno County.

— Federal authorities have charged two men with helping to abduct a Southern California car dealer who was held for $2-million ransom, beaten, killed and buried in the Mojave desert.

LA Pride, one of the nation’s oldest and largest LGBTQ pride celebrations, is leaving West Hollywood after more than four decades in the iconic gay-friendly city. A new location has not been announced.

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NATION-WORLD

— Body-camera footage made public Wednesday from two Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd’s arrest captured a panicked and fearful Floyd pleading with the officers in the minutes before his death, saying, “I’m not a bad guy!” as they tried to wrestle him into a squad car.

Kamala Harris made her mark confronting Biden on the presidential primary debate stage. Could they end up as running mates?

Ivanka Trump defended tweeting a photo of herself holding up a can of Goya beans to support a business that she says has been unfairly treated. Ethics rules bar government officials from using public office to endorse specific products or groups.

— First a pandemic, then the floods: Villagers in southern China face devastation yet again.

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— Nearly impossible without man-made global warming, this year’s freak Siberian heat wave is producing climate change’s most flagrant footprint of extreme weather, a new flash study says.

HOLLYWOOD AND THE ARTS

NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service debuted nationwide Wednesday, betting that weary consumers will tolerate a few commercials in exchange for a low-priced offering. Times Television Critic Robert Lloyd weighs in on whether it’s worth your money.

— TV rarely gets as personal — or as singular in its vision — as Michaela Coel’s HBO show “I May Destroy You.”

— How Kendrick Lamar, Marvin Gaye and “Black genius” inspired a jazz and hip-hop supergroup. Meet Dinner Party.

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— The Chicks have dropped the “Dixie” from their name and are back with a painfully vivid breakup album.

BUSINESS

Twitter is scrambling to contain the damage after a bitcoin scam targeted the accounts of Elon Musk, Kanye West, Bill Gates, Joe Biden, Barack Obama and many others.

Walmart says all U.S. customers must wear masks in its stores starting July 20.

SPORTS

— The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club announced it has canceled its racing program this weekend after 15 jockeys tested positive for COVID-19.

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— The delay in the start of the NBA season has helped the Clippers recover from injuries, giving coach Doc Rivers more options.

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OPINION

— Let’s do this second shutdown the right way, California.

— Pointing out that police also kill white people isn’t a lib-owning comeback.

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WHAT OUR EDITORS ARE READING

— Dr. Anthony Fauci said he isn’t about to quit. But he describes the White House’s efforts to discredit him as “bizarre.” (The Atlantic)

— A 15-year-old girl in Michigan was incarcerated during the coronavirus pandemic after a judge ruled that not completing her schoolwork violated her probation. (ProPublica)

ONLY IN L.A.

Two years ago, Jyan Isaac Horwitz wasn’t thinking about running a successful business. He was just trying to get through his junior year at Hamilton High. Then he worked full time baking bread at Gjusta, the popular Venice deli-bakery-coffee bar-lunch spot. But when the novel coronavirus outbreak forced Gjusta’s kitchens to close in March, he felt adrift. To bring a semblance of normality back into his life, Horwitz began to bake naturally fermented sourdough bread out of his family’s kitchen in Venice, selling loaves to friends and neighbors. Word spread, and what began as a way to pass the time in quarantine grew into a business.

Comments or ideas? Email us at headlines@latimes.com.


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