As Coronavirus Surges, LAUSD Will Not Reopen Campuses For Start Of Next School Year
With Los Angeles' coronavirus numbers headed in the wrong direction, L.A. Unified school officials have ruled out reopening the district's campuses for in-person instruction when a new school year begins next month.
On August 18, classes will resume in online-only mode -- though in his announcement Monday, Superintendent Austin Beutner pledged the district would offer more robust "distance learning" options this fall. Unlike last spring, he said, LAUSD students will be able to expect "daily, live engagement" with their teachers.
Beutner did not set a timetable for reopening LAUSD campuses. He expressed hope that district officials would be able to share more details about how the semester will play out by "early August."
"We know now families are anxious," Beutner said in an interview. "They'll be disappointed, as we all are, that we can't be back at school as soon as we'd like. But the year will begin, and we'll do the best possible thing we can do online."
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A STATEMENT IN A NATIONAL DEBATE
LAUSD's announcement comes in the midst of a heated national debate about school reopening.
Last week, the President threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that don't reopen this fall -- although in reality he doesn't have that unilateral authority. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos took shots at other districts for planning to reopen their campuses less than full-time.
But L.A. Unified is headed in the opposite direction, now becoming the largest school system in the nation so far to announce plans for an online-only start to next year.
Last week, L.A.'s teachers union came out against reopening campuses -- and on Monday, Beutner joined United Teachers Los Angeles in rebuking both the Trump administration for making unrealistic demands, and Congress for failing to come through with an aid package to pay for safety precautions.
"Some of the exhortations don't come with money -- and we need more," Beutner said. "We need money ... for the devices and the internet access we're providing to families -- hasn't come yet. We'll need money for [personal protective equipment] and sanitizing schools -- hasn't come yet."
And LAUSD isn't alone. In a joint statement with LAUSD on Monday, San Diego Unified officials also announced plans to keep campuses closed when their new year begins on August 31 -- meaning California's two largest school systems have now decided to remain in distance learning mode for the foreseeable future.
WHAT'S THE DOWNSIDE?
Beutner's decision is certain to draw mixed reactions. Reopening campuses would've eased a pandemic-induced child care crisis among working parents. Principals worry disengaged high schoolers might drop out. Beutner acknowledged that English learners and students with disabilities face special challenges learning online, and in general, experts fear thousands of students have fallen seriously behind.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has even concluded that "the goal should be to have students physically present in school" this fall. The organization advised that the harms of leaving campuses closed outweigh risks from COVID-19, especially if schools take straightforward precautions.
But Beutner pointed to L.A. County's coronavirus testing numbers -- in particular, the rate at which tests come back positive -- which have continued to trend above thresholds the World Health Organization has established for reopening. That, Beutner said in his video address, should give schools more pause:
"Reopening schools will significantly increase the interaction between children and adults from different families. A 10-year-old student might have a 30-year-old teacher, a 50-year-old bus driver or live with a 70-year-old grandmother. All need to be protected.
"There's a public health imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish."
There's fairly broad consensus among experts that public health conditions won't allow a normal return to campus this fall. But educators, parents and even experts are torn over whether even the most cautious school reopening plans do enough to mitigate the risks.
On one hand, "mounting evidence" shows that COVID-19 poses a far greater risk to adults than it does to school-aged children. Kids are less likely to catch the virus than adults. When kids are infected, they're much less likely to get seriously ill -- or even show symptoms.
The risk to children from coronavirus isn't zero, but the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidance suggests schools can manage those risks with a mix of social distancing measures, mask-wearing -- when "feasible" and age-appropriate for students -- and other precautions.
The American Academy of Pediatrics guidance has taken on a life of its own. From Orange County Board of Education members to Trump administration officials, political leaders have cited the pediatricians' advice to justify more complete campus reopening plans -- but have also glossed over recommendations on mask use and social distancing on reopened campuses.
"It's unfortunate," wrote the Academy's president, Dr. Sally Goza, "that our guidance is being politicized by some and misinterpreted to mean a universal return to school no matter what. That is not what we recommend."
One key fear is that children might play a role in spreading COVID-19 if an infected student shows up at school, particularly without symptoms. Experts think children transmit the virus less than adults -- but as The New York Times has reported, the research on this largely comes from foreign countries where the virus is less prevalent. And much about the virus' long-term health effects remains unknown.
"I'm not inclined," Beutner said in an interview, "to use our children and our staff as a set of guinea pigs or a laboratory to see what really happens when you bring lots of people back."
Beutner agreed schools shouldn't wait until perfect precautions are in place, but remains unconvinced by the available research that reopening campuses is safe.
In any case, he argued the surging case numbers in L.A. make the debate a moot point: "We couldn't be back now safely just bringing the adults back. There's too much spread."
HOW LAUSD ARRIVED AT THIS DECISION
In some ways, Beutner has been laying the groundwork for Monday's announcement for weeks.
In more than one video address, the superintendent has stressed reopening is "not as simple as ... moving the desks or putting some painter's tape on the floor," saying LAUSD needs funding, protective gear, liability protections and public health directions. Public health conditions would dictate when LAUSD campuses reopen, he said.
Beutner has also consistently harped on the need for robust coronavirus testing and contact tracing systems. In Monday's speech, he offered a case that LAUSD would be a natural partner to help contact tracers map the spread of the disease and to offer on-site testing for students.
But in an interview, he said the district is still "lacking clarity" from public health officials about whether schools shouldn't reopen until on-campus testing is available.
"They're the ones," Beutner said, "who have to give the community the answer -- that it's not necessary, or that they don't have the capacity, or they don't have the dollars. Whatever the answer is, our community is owed an answer."
Last month, Beutner floated a series of possible "hybrid schedules" in which students would attend in-person classes in staggered shifts to lessen chances for outbreaks. Beutner hinted the district is getting closer to selecting one, and could reveal its choice early next month -- for use when campuses reopen.
In the near-term, LAUSD will need to negotiate a new working arrangement with the teachers union -- which has also called for the district to continue in online-only mode.
"We all want to physically open schools and be back with our students," said United Teachers Los Angeles president Cecily Myart-Cruz in a statement last week, "but lives hang in the balance. Safety has to be the priority."
Last spring, UTLA and the district agreed that teachers could choose not to offer live, daily video instruction. But Beutner said a new state law will require both sides to revisit this provision: schools will again be held to requirements to offer a minimum number of "instructional minutes" -- and will have to log how students spend this time, even during distance learning.
But while the fine points may require some hammering out, Beutner said the two sides are on the same page.
"I've talked with union leadership," he said, "and they agree: We want to do the best possible job online."
11:45 a.m.: This article was updated to include the joint statement from both LAUSD and San Diego Unified.
This article was originally published at 11:00 a.m.