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LAUSD Could Reopen Its Doors In April -- But Which Parents Will Send Their Kids Back?

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L.A. Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner (center-left) and United Teachers Los Angeles president Cecily Myart-Cruz (center-right) lead reporters on a tour of Panorama High School on March 10, 2021, to show off safety preparations made to welcome students back in the spring. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)
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Juanita Garcia doesn't think her opinion counted for much in Los Angeles Unified School District's decision to reopen campuses next month. Garcia, whose adopted grandchildren attend San Fernando High School, believes LAUSD students are returning because parents from areas more affluent than the East Valley have demanded it.

"What we can see from this district and from the union is that our students don't count," Garcia said in Spanish through an interpreter. "And we don't either. What really counts for them is the money."

Michelle Rojas-Soto, whose eighth- and tenth graders attend school in Eagle Rock, gave LAUSD a little more credit: "They're the district that has done the most," to balance the concerns of its predominantly low-income and Latino community with pressures to resume on-campus instruction, she said.

Still, like Garcia, Rojas-Soto will likely keep both kids home for the rest of the year. If COVID-19 flares up again, she says, she says Black and Latino kids are likely to be at the most risk.

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HOW MANY PARENTS WILL SEND THEIR KIDS BACK TO CAMPUS?

United Teachers Los Angeles leaders and LAUSD officials tentatively agreed to a plan this week that could reopen elementary campuses by April 19, and middle and high school buildings a few weeks after that. (The district's school board approved the deal Thursday, and now it goes to a full union vote.)

Some teachers, kids and parents have welcomed the deal. Distance learning has been an academic disaster for many English learners, and for students with disabilities. Campus closures have left parents in a long-term childcare lurch -- forcing some to leave their jobs -- and have left many children feeling isolated, depressed or worse.

But it's still an open question how many parents will send their kids back. Many of the COVID-19 cases and deaths from L.A.'s especially bad winter surge ravaged many of the same neighborhoods that LAUSD serves.

"There is concern in the community that many families have already contracted coronavirus," said Evelyn Aleman, a public relations professional who started a group called "Our Voice" for Spanish-speaking public school parents. "There is a fear that they will contract it again, and this time they may not (survive)."

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LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner is conscious of the need to convince uneasy parents. At the East Valley's Panorama High School on Wednesday, news cameras paraded by newly-bought jugs of hand sanitizer, new filters for the HVAC system and new electrostatic mister cleaning machines -- all visual reminders of special safety protocols baked into the deal with UTLA.

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The plant manager of Panorama High School shows off a new electrostatic sprayer cleaning machine during a campus tour on March 10, 2021. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

"Part of what we're here (to do) today," Beutner told the cameras Wednesday, "is to make sure families understand: this is the safest possible school environment -- period, end of story. I challenge you to find a safer school environment anywhere in the country."

In my conversations with a dozen parents and teachers after this week's announcement, three themes emerged:

(1) IS A LESS-THAN-IDEAL CLASSROOM SETTING WORTH THE RISK?

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As NPR has reported, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has advised that "proper mitigation can help keep kids and staff safe at school, even in hard-hit communities, though it also warns that schools lulled into a false sense of security because of low community transmission rates could still spread the virus if they don't enforce mask-wearing and socially distanced classrooms."

That latter scenario -- or something like it -- is what concerns Rojas-Soto in Eagle Rock: "When there is another outbreak of COVID, it will again disproportionately affect Black and Latinx communities."

Already uneasy about reopening, Rojas-Soto said LAUSD's plan for reopening middle- and high school students made the decision to keep her students home easier.

Starting potentially at the end of April, LAUSD secondary students will be given the option to return to campus on alternating days. But they won't receive much in-person instruction or mingle between classes. Instead, they'll continue to attend classes online in their "advisory" (think: homeroom) classrooms -- with the aid of noise-canceling headphones.

"I think the 'Zoom in a room' is sad," said Rojas-Soto -- who believes her teens will be more comfortable attending classes at home.

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"I know that [the in-classroom environment] is better than what some people can create at home," she added, "and I want those people to have better. They deserve that and they should. But it's not where we should all end up ultimately."

For her family, she said, "Health is first and foremost."

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Desks spaced six feet apart in a classroom at Panorama High School in the L.A. Unified School District. The nation's second-largest school system hopes to welcome back middle- and high schoolers to campuses in late April. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

(2) EVEN A NOT-GREAT SITUATION ON CAMPUS MIGHT BE BETTER THAN HOME

Beutner has said that a mixture of health guidelines and logistical concerns -- including the difficulty of redoing a school's master schedule so late in the year -- likely make the district's "Zoom-in-a-room" scenario the best that LAUSD can offer in middle- and high school this semester.

Science teacher Darlene Tieu said the setup will be less than ideal.

But assuming that LAUSD's investments in safety equipment and protocols pay off, Tieu said that most of her students at her school -- Mann UCLA Community School, at Florence & Western in South L.A. -- will benefit from the opportunity to return to campus.

"Those four walls were a protective barrier," said Tieu, "that allowed students to access education despite everything that was going on outside of school. So when we went into distance learning and a lot of that was lost -- now students were not in a place where they could just be students. Now, they were babysitters, they had to go to work with their parents, they were no longer in a space where they could focus."

And even if a student can focus at home, some may need some space of their own away from family.

"A lot of these kids are living in homes that have multiple families living in an apartment, multiple families in a home," said Luis Mora, who teaches science at Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington. "I don't think it's a bad thing opening up the schools in parts of L.A. as long as it's done safely and right. It gives the students a chance to have a little independence."

But how many students will think it's worth it?

Don Luong, a history teacher at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, polled students in his advisory about returning. He said earlier this week, his class was split 50-50 between coming back and opting out.

When he polled them again on Thursday -- after details of the "Zoom-in-a-room" arrangement came out -- he said 12 of 20 students said they wouldn't be back.

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A worker at LAUSD's Panorama High School changes out a dirty MERV-13 filter for a clean one during a media tour of the campus on March 10, 2021. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

Many of the older high schoolers Tieu advises won't be coming in either -- they have immunocompromised parents and unvaccinated older siblings.

"Miss, that just sounds like the same thing I do here," Tieu's students told her. "Why get up, why take two buses to go to school? Why do all of that to just do the same thing?"

Which for Tieu raises this question: Why reopen now? She wonders what would happen if state lawmakers hadn't passed an aid package contingent on schools reopening next month -- or if California weren't moving forward with plans to give students standardized tests this spring.

"If it weren't for the funding and state testing," Tieu said, "we wouldn't have much to lose if we spent the summer really workshopping how this could work for our students."

(3) SOME PARENTS ARE RELUCTANT TO TRUST LAUSD

Beutner says the district is immediately spending that aid on improvements to keep buildings clean. LAUSD has received more than $1.8 billion in extraordinary aid from the state and federal governments. Of those funds, LAUSD has invested more than $120 million "in custodial staff, cleaning supplies and upgraded facilities," Beutner has said.

However, many LAUSD parents and teachers have accumulated years' worth of anecdotes about unclean bathrooms, a lack of soap dispensers or empty towel rolls. Labor groups representing the district's custodial staff have long said LAUSD suffers from a lengthy maintenance backlog.

"There are classrooms that don't have a sink to wash your hands," said Eloísa Galindo, whose children attend Marianna Avenue Elementary in East L.A. and Eagle Rock Junior-Senior High. "That was in the 'regular' times. Now, they're going to forget about us after the pandemic."

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L.A. Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner (center), United Teachers Los Angeles president Cecily Myart-Cruz (right) and Panorama High School principal Joe Nardulli lead reporters on a campus tour to show off safety preparations made to welcome students back in the spring. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

The reopening deal includes what teachers' union president Cecily Myart-Cruz called "enforceable" safety measures: cleanliness task forces at each school site, and a COVID-19 hotline where anyone at a school site can report a problem.

"If there's something amiss," Myart-Cruz said, "we will be able to -- all of us, as stakeholders -- be beholden to our communities and be beholden to our students. No one wants to see a student sick, a staff member sick."

At Wednesday's press conference, Beutner put the onus on himself to be the district's "chief enforcement officer," saying that a central office compliance team will oversee each school site's efforts to keep classrooms sanitized.

But South Gate parent Carla Franco has yet to be won over. She recounted a recent meeting -- before the UTLA deal was struck -- where a school principal spoke about a possible return to campuses.

"He never really actually had a plan (for safety)," Franco recounted, "and never talked about the return of the school to the campus. All he talked about was 'the vaccine, the vaccine, and the vaccine.'"

She, too, would rather wait until fall to send her daughter back to school.

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