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Back To School Frustration Builds For LAUSD Parents Who Still Have No Word On Online Option

A woman in a green shirt and a blue paper mask conducts virtual teaching on a laptop.
A teacher at Sylvan Park Early Education teacher leads an online lesson during the 2020-21 school year.
(Mariana Dale
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A new school year begins in Los Angeles on Monday — but Brian Bartelt and Marta Costello don’t know whether their children will be part of it.

In early July, Bartelt and Costello told the L.A. Unified School District they planned to opt their kids out of in-person instruction. Through an online form, they formally expressed interest in the only alternative available: the district’s virtual independent study program, City of Angels.

Listen: LAUSD Classes Start Monday, But Many Parents Who Chose Online Option Don’t Know If Their Kids Have A Spot

In the month since, Bartelt and Costello have reaffirmed their intent to enroll their kids in City of Angels “at least five times,” including in a follow-up phone call with LAUSD and through another online form. They said they’ve filled out enrollment packets for each child, but that they haven’t been told where, how or when to submit them.

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With just days until school begins, Bartelt and Costello are still waiting for confirmation that their children have spots in the program.

“We have no idea what’s going to happen,” Costello said. “It’s just wait by the phone for the teacher to call.’”

'Does Not Appear To Be Prepared'

Though COVID-19 continues to sicken Californians old and young, state law no longer allows for “distance learning” or “hybrid” instruction in public schools: in-person classes will once again be the norm. State law does, however, require public schools to offer “independent study” programs for students who are unable or unwilling to return.

This summer, the parents of more than 12,000 LAUSD students, including Bartelt and Costello, expressed their desire to enroll their children in City of Angels. In pre-pandemic times, the district’s longstanding independent study school educated some 1,500 students.

It appears parent interest in the program really took off only after LAUSD extended the deadline to express interest from July 30 to August 6. This left the district with less time to walk more parents through the enrollment process, which involves paperwork, a learning agreement, and an intake appointment between the student and teacher.

We are fully staffed with the needed teachers to accommodate all interested students for our online independent study program.
— LAUSD spokesperson Shannon Haber

Parents’ frustrations are building. With the school year about to begin, many parents say their students’ enrollment in City of Angels still hasn’t been finalized — and that when they reach out to the district, they’re having trouble getting clear information.

“The district does not appear to be prepared for the potentiality that a substantial proportion of families will opt out of in person learning,” read a parent letter from Reclaim our Schools L.A., an advocacy group allied with LAUSD’s teachers union and several other local organizations.

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LAUSD: Making Sure 'Families Have A Complete Picture'

In a statement, LAUSD spokesperson Shannon Haber said the district is “making every effort to contact all families before August 16.”

After setting a deadline to express interest through LAUSD’s online Parent Portal website, district staffers then had to confirm whether parents actually planned to follow through with the enrollment process, Haber said.

“Because the format for the online independent study program differs from the distance learning families experienced in 2020-2021,” Haber said, “we have made consistent efforts to reach out to families through webinars, phone calls, website updates, and emails to ensure families have a complete picture.”

Through those outreach efforts, Haber said LAUSD has “heard from over 9,000 families” out of the 12,456 families that originally expressed interest in City of Angels.

“About 8,000” of those students confirmed their interest in enrolling, and another 1,000 families “have either changed their mind to in-person or are still undecided,” Haber said.

City of Angels is asking parents to sign up for one of three back-to-school webinars on Saturday, Aug. 14, and on Monday, Aug. 16. Haber said the sessions would include “information about the online independent study program and information to begin their class with their teacher.”

School board member Nick Melvoin acknowledged the district has the responsibility to ensure the City of Angels program is an “engaging and supportive learning environment” for students who need it.

“I do believe that the best place for our kids right now is the classroom, and that we have the right protocols in place to welcome everyone back safely,” he said. “At the same time, our job isn’t to force any family into returning to school.”

A teacher in a yellow sweater talks to her students through Zoom.
Sylvan Park Early Education teacher Wendy Workman talks to her students through Zoom.
(Mariana Dale

'Between A Rock And A Hard Place'

Advocates say parents of students with special education plans will face even more hurdles enrolling in the program.

The parents will first have to contact their home school to rewrite their student’s all-important Individualized Education Plan, or “IEP” — the central document outlining all services a school must provide to a student with an identified disability. Parents will have to call for a meeting to consult with the student’s teachers as to whether they agree that an independent study program is a good fit for the student.

Haber said City of Angels is “available to service all students, including students with disabilities.”

If the parent feels, ‘This is too risky, I need to keep my kid at home,’ that’s the parents’ right to make that call … Yet at the same time, LAUSD is not offering this option of a free and appropriate public education in a virtual setting for these kids.
— Lisa Mosko, Director of Advocacy for Special Education and Educational Rights at Speak Up, a politically-active parent group

But in the short term, the requirement to hold an IEP meeting will likely delay many enrollments, said Chris Eisenberg, an attorney who represents students with special education plans.

“The parents are between a rock and a hard place,” Eisenberg said, “because they cannot get into the independent study program without approval from their IEP team. But if they can’t get that approval and in the meantime, they’re scared to death of sending their children to school.”

Kat Becker, legal guardian to her 15-year-old granddaughter — who is on the autism spectrum and has a special education plan — expressed interest in the City of Angels program in mid-July. They both live with Becker’s 90-year-old mother and her immunocompromised brother.

But with roughly one week before school started, Becker learned she would need to hold an IEP meeting in order to make the switch. She was taken completely by surprise.

Becker will continue to explore whether a switch into the City of Angels program is possible, but in the meantime, her granddaughter will attend in-person classes at University High School — despite the risks.

“I haven’t given up on it,” she said, “but we’re going to go through the process and I’m also going to see how she does at school. It’s just keeping fingers crossed, praying a lot and keeping on top of the situation.”

“I think it’s a huge failure on the district for not planning better,” she said. “I don’t know if it was an oversight. I don’t know where that disconnect was — or maybe they don’t want the kids in City of Angels.”

Tension With Special Education Law?

The quandaries parents face deepen if a student's IEP team concludes City of Angels is not a good fit — especially for a student who has trouble sitting still in front of a computer or accessing content through a screen.

Lisa Mosko directs special education advocacy for Speak Up, a politically-active parent organization. She fears that in many cases, as parents attempt to switch their student into City of Angels, LAUSD will conclude that the program can’t offer services demanded by the child’s special education plan.

She says this could set up a fundamental conflict between California’s Assembly Bill 130 — which arguably creates a right for parents to opt their children out of in-person instruction — and federal disability law, which requires that schools provide a “free and appropriate public education.”

“If the parent feels, ‘This is too risky, I need to keep my kid at home,’ that’s the parents’ right to make that call” under AB 130,” Mosko said. “Yet at the same time, LAUSD is not offering this option of a free and appropriate public education in a virtual setting for these kids.”

Eisenberg said school districts will need to find creative solutions.

“It’s true that [independent study] might not be appropriate for children who are receiving special education,” said Eisenberg. “However, [districts are] not taking it to the next step,” which would be to find an option that does work — without giving the child no choice but to return to school.

Eisenberg has worked with other districts to get their clients access to “home hospital” education programs — which he characterized as not ideal, but an “any-port-in-a-storm” alternative. But if districts aren’t responsive to the needs of special education students, he predicts a surge in litigation.

The 'Anti-Sales Pitch'

Bartelt and Costello say they have no viable choice other than enrolling their three children — a kindergartener, third grader and fifth grader — in the City of Angels program.

One of their children has congenital kidney defects that increases the child’s risk from COVID-19, so Bartelt and Costello kept all three home from last spring when LAUSD reopened their home campus, Richland Avenue Elementary in Mar Vista. Back then, when COVID-19 case rates were falling, the family felt a glimmer of hope for the fall.

But now, “with transmission so high,” Bartelt said, “there’s really no decision to be made — there’s no choice for us.”

Bartelt and Costello now suspect that LAUSD, overwhelmed by interest in City of Angels, might be trying to talk up the difficulty of the independent study program in hopes of convincing parents to give in-person instruction a try.

During a phone call last weekend, Bartelt and Costello said they got an “anti-sales pitch” for City of Angels from a district staffer.

“They didn’t provide any actual information about what [the program] would be like — just that it would be an exorbitant amount of time on Zoom and then independent work on top of that,” Costello said. “If they were looking to be upfront and allay fears, they did not.”

“The intent, to me,” Costello added, “at every turn with City of Angels, has been to dissuade people” from following through with enrollment.

District officials said the City of Angels program is not overwhelmed by the new demand.

In her statement, Haber said City of Angels was “fully staffed with the needed teachers to accommodate all interested students for our online independent study program.”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).

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