LA Schools Are Now Shut Until May — And So Far, Online Learning Is Falling Short

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that the shutdown of in-person instruction will continue through May 1. (Screenshot from lausd.net)

By Kyle Stokes and Carla Javier

Leaders of Southern California's largest school districts are beginning to outline plans for grappling with a new, difficult reality: that the coronavirus pandemic will make face-to-face instruction practically impossible for weeks, if not months, to come.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials announced Monday they would cancel classes through May 1, meaning 472,000 students will be out of school for an additional five weeks at least.

LAUSD's move follows a recommendation from L.A. County education officials advising that all county schools — serving more than 1.4 million children — close their doors through early May. The districts in Long Beach, Glendale, Inglewood and elsewhere have already made plans to close for at least that long.

Meanwhile, L.A. and San Diego Unified school officials together issued a dire plea to California legislative leaders on Monday: send schools more emergency K-12 funding, or risk sending districts' budgets off a fiscal cliff.

"We face the largest adaptive challenge for large urban public education systems in a generation," leaders of the state's two largest school systems said in a joint statement. "Pick your metaphor: This is the moon shot, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy landing, and the Marshall Plan, and the clock is ticking."

LOST LEARNING TIME?

Gov. Gavin Newsom has already warned parents that schools statewide may not be able to resume in-person instruction this academic year. Even if LAUSD were able to re-open on May 4 — a very big "if" — only six weeks would remain in the regularly-scheduled school year.

So in a broadcasted address on Monday, L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner announced plans to ensure these weeks don't turn into lost learning time for students.

In his speech, Beutner made a remarkable admission: that despite being sent home on March 13 with some combination of online coursework and paper-and-pencil assignments, thousands of students were likely unable to continue learning in a meaningful way during LAUSD's first week without any in-person instruction.

"We estimate about one-half of our students are continuing to learn at the pace they had been at school," he said. "One-quarter are doing okay, but additional work is needed to make sure students are getting the full benefit of the learning."

"And one-quarter," Beutner added, "aren't getting the learning opportunity they should be."

DEVICES & INTERNET FOR ALL LAUSD STUDENTS

Beutner's plan to address this inequity focuses on what he framed as the root cause: "a great digital divide." Perhaps 100,000 LAUSD students lack internet at home — and many students, parents and teachers haven't gotten enough training "to support online learning."

Beutner said LAUSD was making an emergency $100 million investment to ensure every student is able to access online lessons from home. He announced a deal with Verizon, in which LAUSD will cover the cost for the wireless giant to provide internet service to needy families in the district.

Both LAUSD officials and a Verizon spokeswoman declined to release terms of the deal.

Another part of that emergency investment: a promise that LAUSD will provide laptop or tablet computers to students who need them. Previously, LAUSD officials have estimated that they own only enough devices to provide about two-thirds of their students with their own.

In an interview, Beutner also left open the possibility that district bond dollars would be used to complete the device purchases.

Beutner promised to provide details "shortly" on how schools would hand over "devices and needed technology ... to students who do not have them."

"The effort will start with high school students," the superintendent said, "and eventually [progress] all the way to elementary school students."

Beutner also said that everyone needs to adjust their expectations as LAUSD educators "build capacity in online learning."

"It's not reasonable ... nor is it sound educational practice, for teachers and students to spend six hours a day in online, two-way communication," he said in his speech. "And families who are struggling to get by in this crisis may not be able to spend all day trying to help their children do schoolwork."

Emma Alvarez Gibson, who has a 14-year-old son at a LAUSD magnet school in the South Bay, says she's fortunate that her school's staff is tech savvy.

"One of his teachers just last week decided that she's going to be having twice weekly Zoom calls, and they're optional," Alvarez Gibson said. "The first one was on Friday, and my son said that she first wanted to find out how everybody was doing, and she wanted to talk about whether anybody had any questions. She went over the safer at home policy, she explained different things to them about homework."

The fact that many kids don't have that level of engagement or the access to books, the internet, and digital devices concerns Anji Williams, a mother of two who teaches at a middle school in Hollywood.

"This is really a wake-up call in so many different ways to disparity," she said. "It's unfortunate that it takes a pandemic for us to pay closer attention to certain ways that our students are impacted and won't be able to distance learn."

A K-12 'MARSHALL PLAN' FOR SCHOOLS

California education officials are scrambling to offer assistance to local school leaders, all of whom are trying to navigate an unprecedented crisis without a map. Late last week, state officials published new advice for how to handle the thorny subject of serving students with disabilities without face-to-face instruction.

But on Monday, LAUSD and San Diego Unified school district's leaders told state lawmakers that a more coordinated statewide response — and more emergency funding — will be necessary to respond to the crisis.

In a joint letter sent to the L.A. and San Diego county state legislative delegations, Beutner and San Diego's superintendent, Cindy Marten, called for:

  • More emergency funding. In the letter, LAUSD and SDUSD officials said the legislature's $100 million in emergency appropriation to pay for protective gear and cleaning of school sites will not be enough: "Our budgets will not balance for the current fiscal year because of the extraordinary costs associated with responding to the global pandemic."
  • Device and internet access funding. The school district leaders called for a "minimum of $500 per student to fund the costs of creating online distance learning for every student." The letter suggests legislative leaders distribute the funding based on the numbers of high-needs students each district serves.
  • Revisiting graduation requirements. The letter suggests some high school seniors' diplomas might be at risk because they're "missing instruction time and coursework necessary to meet all of their graduation requirements."
  • More 'flexibilities and funding' for special education. In LAUSD and SDUSD, the transition to online learning impacts more than 80,000 "individualized education plans" — specific, legally-mandated documents outlining services every student with an identified disability receives. The districts need advice and options, the letter said.
  • Help for English learners. Similarly, the letter says that thousands of students still learning English need special assistance of their own — and teachers will need training to ensure they can continue serving these students through distance learning.

In addition to the county delegations, the letter was also sent to California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendom and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins.