What Could Schools Look Like When They Reopen? Here's What LA County Education Officials Say

In the reopening framework, the task force suggests limiting traditional classrooms to 16 students to allow for physical distancing. (Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash)

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By Carla Javier, Kyle Stokes and Mariana Dale

A task force convened by the Los Angeles County Office of Education released a framework Wednesday with guidelines for the county's 80 school districts as they plan for when, how — and maybe whether — to reopen school campuses.

The 43-page document lays out how different schools could operate in the 2020-21 school year, though ultimately, the decision on reopening campuses is up to the leaders of each district and charter.

"Schools are not going to look the same when they reopen," Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo said in a briefing on the framework. "And our framework offers options and a lot of flexibility that can be adapted to promote the physical distancing that we expect the Department of Public Health to require of us."

Practically, that means districts could implement measures like:

  • Providing instruction in a "hybrid" way, meaning some in-person classes and some via distance learning
  • Staggering schedules, including lunch and recess
  • Organizing students in "stable" groupings, so they're with the same people each day
  • Capping class sizes in typical classrooms to 16 students
  • Moving instruction outdoors and into non-traditional classroom spaces
  • Making hallways and stairwells one-way
  • Scheduling hand-washing time and bathroom use
  • Identifying an "isolation room" for students or staff who may be sick
  • Limiting activities or assignments that involve sharing supplies
  • And many, many more

In a separate update, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said state guidelines on reopening schools will be released in early June, but he provided a few glimpses of what that guidance will include: face coverings for everyone, smaller classes, fewer students on buses, physical distancing, and temperature checks.

Some of those guidelines echo those made by the county, though if differences were to arise, Susan Chaides from LACOE's Community Health and Safe Schools Unit said the county Office of Education would recommend following the most strict guidance.

SOME DISSENT (AND A LETTER TO TRUMP)

Not everyone agrees that these guidelines are the right approach, though.

Palos Verdes Unified School District superintendent Alex Cherniss — along with nine other local superintendents — signed a letter listing concerns with some of the proposed guidance. Cherniss forwarded the letter to President Donald Trump.

"Policies and procedures like keeping children 6 feet apart and requiring young children to wear face coverings all day are not only impractical, but will render our ability to reopen school on a daily basis nearly impossible," Cherniss wrote in the letter.

The 10 area superintendents expressed concern about the guidelines and asked for more flexibility on the proposed physical distancing and face covering guidance. In the letter, they argued that it could be very expensive to follow those guidelines and difficult to get young people to comply with them.

"While many of these proposed guidelines may be feasible in a hospital setting or a commercial business setting, we do not believe they are feasible or practical in a school setting," they wrote.


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The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the state and second largest in the nation, declined to comment on LACOE's framework on Wednesday. United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents LAUSD teachers, said in a statement that it's surveying staff, students, and the community about reopening, and will integrate what they learn into negotiations with the district.

"Educators want more than anything to be back in schools with our students, whom we love," the union said in a statement. "But, we also understand deeply that the only way this can happen is if schools are healthy, safe, and improved. The status quo will not be enough to safeguard students and educators alike."

There's also the challenge of paying for it all. As LACOE task force member and Rowland Unified School District Superintendent Julie Mitchell acknowledged in a briefing on the framework, implementing these guidelines could be expensive, and this year is expected to be a tough one for school budgets.

"School districts need full funding," Mitchell said. "This is necessary not only to provide the services that our schools and districts have provided in the past and our community so desperately relies on, but there will be significant costs that are additional, related to the reopening and serving our students in our community during and post-pandemic."

The L.A. County Office of Education task force report includes a flow chart to guide school officials as they make plans for the 2020-21 school year.

CHILD CARE

The LACOE guidelines also apply to students in daycare and preschool programs.

The changes will be apparent from the moment parents drop off their kids off outside the center — adults won't be allowed to walk into the classroom with their little ones.

"We're really pushing for parents to be part of that environment with the children, that's essential to the learning process, but here we are going to have to go opposite of that," said Keesha Woods, executive director of Head Start and Early Learning at the L.A. County Office of Education.

The inside of classrooms will look different too. Typically, children rotate through different learning centers focused on specific activities like reading or theater. Woods says it's likely teachers will move between groups of children instead to minimize the amount of contact and remind children of the new rules.

"You can tell a 6-year old to stay in an area, and they're more likely to stay there versus a 3-year-old," Woods said.

Preschools and daycares would be limited to groups of 10 kids under the LACOE guidelines. (Priska Neely/LAist)

Right now, public health officials say groups of young children should be limited to 10. Infants should be limited to groups of four.

"I have every intent of serving the same number of kids," Woods said. "However, I do know that I'm going to be serving some children in the classroom. I'm going to serve some children through our distance learning."

One way to increase the capacity of the child care centers and encourage children to stay a healthy distance apart could be the creation of outdoor classrooms.

"Most of the centers are open right now, they are keeping the children outside as much as possible," said Sonia Cleary, who oversees Early Head Start programs at Child360 for about 100 children.

A few South L.A. centers that have remained open through the pandemic moved toys like Legos, blocks and books outside to supplement traditional activities like chalk drawing and playground climbing.

These centers might have other lessons for district early education programs, such as how to screen children for illness at the start of each school day and communicate with families about wearing masks.