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LAUSD Ended Remote Work Despite ‘Serious Concerns’ About COVID In Its Headquarters. Now There’s An Outbreak

A security guard sits at a desk under a wall that says "Los Angeles Unified School District."
An officer waits at the security desk in the lobby of the Los Angeles Unified School District's headquarters, the "Beaudry" building, in 2017.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)
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Workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s downtown headquarters have failed at least one public health inspection in recent weeks as a COVID-19 outbreak among employees has forced officials to reimpose mask-wearing rules on five floors of the building, according to union representatives and emails obtained by LAist.

Data from the L.A. County Department of Public Health show the coronavirus outbreak in LAUSD’s central office building — often called “Beaudry,” after its street address — has sickened 71 employees and exposed another 100 adult workers since it began on Aug. 24.

During two recent visits to the affected floors at Beaudry, county health inspectors observed multiple LAUSD employees flouting state regulations that require employees to wear masks during an office outbreak.

The inspectors’ concerns prompted the district’s human resources department to warn workers — in a Sept. 14 email — that the county could fine LAUSD or extend the outbreak masking rules if Beaudry failed another inspection.

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Two days later, county health officials returned to Beaudry. After this most recent inspection, the health department “reported that we [LAUSD] are fully compliant with all safety requirements,” according to a statement from an LAUSD spokesperson.

A health department spokesperson said in a statement that during the most recent inspection, “the vast majority of employees who were required to mask indoors were compliant.”

Office Return Prompted Close Look At Ventilation System

Some Beaudry workers contend this outbreak was a direct, avoidable consequence of a policy that now largely forbids LAUSD employees from working remotely.

Shortly after arriving in LAUSD this spring, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced central office staffers still working remotely would have to return to their cubicles by April 25.

Before the policy took effect, some of LAUSD’s own facilities experts sounded alarms internally about COVID-19 safety in the building with district higher-ups.

A man and woman walk through a doorway into a school building with the sun brightly shining behind them. The man looks up and to his left to see a drone hovering nearby.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, left, tours El Sereno Middle School on Aug. 19, 2022.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)

Teamsters Local 572 — a union representing supervisors in Beaudry departments such as IT, facilities and accounting — shared a March 30 email with LAist from an LAUSD engineer who raised “serious concerns” with his boss. The engineer said he felt the district was doing the “bare minimum” to ensure Beaudry was ready for the employees’ return.

In a March 7 memo, LAUSD Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter contended that the district’s ventilation system had been “programmed to bring in fresh air,” and was fitted with thicker, MERV-13 air filters meant to strain out COVID-sized particles.

“Every precaution has been taken to prepare the building for occupancy,” Hovatter wrote.

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The engineer had a different take.

“L.A. Unified is relying on rough calculations I performed using incomplete and older data to certify that Beaudry is safe to return,” the engineer told his boss in the email the Teamsters shared. He called for outside experts to verify the ventilation system’s capacity to pump enough fresh, outdoor air into the building.

Adriana Salazar Avila, a representative from Teamsters Local 572, said these concerns have informed pointed questions from the union in subsequent negotiations with the district over the return to the office.

“The members who raised the problems whose background is in [ventilation] and engineering … their concerns were the building was unsafe,” Salazar Avila said. “They still haven’t been answered completely to their satisfaction that the building is safe.”

In a statement this week, an LAUSD spokesperson said the district has deployed 140 air cleaners on the Beaudry floors impacted by the outbreak — part of a stock of 2,500 air cleaning devices “that are dispatched to any site on an as needed basis.” The building’s ventilation systems are “up to all standards and codes,” the spokesperson said.

“We take the safety and health of our employees very seriously,” the statement read.

A street sign reading "300 S Beaudry Av" on a light pole in front of a massive office building
Though the building's actual name is simply the L.A. Unified School District Administrative Headquarters, most people refer to the office as "Beaudry" after its address on Beaudry Avenue.
(Kyle Stokes
/
KPCC/LAist)

‘We Don’t Have To Be Here. We Could All Be At Home.’

LAUSD has allowed for few, if any, exceptions to its back-to-Beaudry policy.

Officials for both the Teamsters and the California School Employees Association (CSEA) — unions which together represent at least half of the 3,500 employees at Beaudry — say they aren’t aware of any workers who’ve received permission to continue working remotely, and that even medical concerns don't ensure exemptions.

CSEA officials have argued the back-to-Beaudry policy makes “acute” a problem that existed before the pandemic, that the district’s approach to providing “reasonable accommodations for employees” left so little room for exceptions that it may violate state and federal workplace laws, according to a letter it sent to LAUSD’s attorneys.

Still, throughout the most recent outbreak, employees’ exasperation with the end of remote work has been evident.

“Members were like, ‘Let us work remotely so we’re not breathing on each other,'" Salazar Avila said. "For them, [it’s] the funniest thing: ‘We don’t have to be here. We could all be at home — and then you don’t have this problem.’”

In a survey of CSEA members last spring, 86% of respondents said they were somewhat or very uncomfortable with returning to the office — virtually all of them because of the COVID-19 risk. Two-thirds of respondents lived with someone who had a health condition that increases their COVID-19 risk.

“People who work for the district are vaccinated, but they go home to other people who may not be vaccinated,” said CSEA Local 500 president Letetsia Fox. “We know how expensive it is to live here; some people have moved out, [so] employees … are caring for their parents. They are caring for older aunts and uncles.”

New Leadership Has Shifted To Emphasize In-Person Operations

This flare-up over LAUSD’s remote work policy highlights even deeper questions about the future of Beaudry, a 900,000-square-foot Borg Cube of a building just west of the 110 Freeway downtown.

In April 2021 — before Carvalho’s arrival — then-superintendent Austin Beutner ordered LAUSD to take steps toward selling the headquarters building, or at least leasing out part of it.

The move would have practical, as well as symbolic power. The building is famously difficult to reach: parking is a hassle, the commute is grueling, and the district's geographic spread means a long trek for parents. For anyone who sees LAUSD’s bureaucracy as monolithic and inaccessible, the building itself is a ready-made emblem for their critiques.

A large office building with palm trees in the foreground near a busy street.
The L.A. Unified School District's headquarters is located across the 110 Freeway from downtown.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)

Beutner saw a move out of Beaudry as the next step in an ongoing process of “decentralizing” the district’s administrative bureaucracy.

Before the pandemic, he’d relocated many administrators to 44 “Communities of Schools” branch offices, which were meant to reduce the geographic distance between school principals and their bosses. After the pandemic hit, headquarters staff adapted to working remotely, arguably making a Beaudry sale even more feasible.

Later, in an April 2021 memo, LAUSD officials said they were exploring “collaborative workspaces” — co-working offices where remote employees could check out a desk and meetings when needed. In meetings with Salazar Avila and Fox, administrators hinted that some central office employees might never be required to return to Beaudry on a full-time basis.

“Through a combination of remote work and relocation to an office closer to where they live and work,” Beutner said in a press release in April 2021, “these employees may benefit from shorter commutes as well as quicker access and closer connection to schools they support.”

Since Carvalho’s arrival, the message to central office employees has changed. Even if a move out of Beaudry isn’t entirely ruled out, Carvalho has indicated that he plans to make full use of the square footage for the time being.

In late February, the new superintendent announced he would recall all employees to district headquarters by the end of April. Carvalho listed the action in a plan for his first 100 days on the job under a section outlining “immediate actions to build momentum for the work ahead.” On March 7, Beaudry employees received a memo outlining the details of the office’s reopening.

“Now that health and safety conditions allow for our safe return,” Hovatter wrote, “we can continue providing our utmost support and service to our students and schools by resuming full in-person operations at Beaudry.”

What The End Of Remote Work Means For LAUSD Employees

Safety isn’t the only facet of the return-to-Beaudry policy concerning employees. One-quarter of CSEA employees who answered the spring survey said they were concerned about childcare. One-third worried about leaving a vulnerable family member at home. Two-thirds weren’t eager to resume long commutes.

An abstract sculpture — a framework of three-dimensional shapes — hangs in the interior courtyard of an office building lined with glass.
An abstract sculpture hangs in the interior courtyard of the L.A. Unified School District's headquarters, Beaudry, in 2016.
(Kyle Stokes
/
KPCC/LAist)

That said, about 52% of CSEA employees reported fears that their commute itself would put them at greater COVID-19 risk — an indication of how many employees rely on transit. The union officials said LAUSD has not restored a popular shuttle service between Beaudry and Union Station that existed before the pandemic, making the commute downtown even more inconvenient and costly.

Salazar Avila acknowledged that the ability to work remotely is a luxury that not all LAUSD employees enjoy. The vast majority of LAUSD teachers, principals and support staff have been working on campuses since at least April 2021. Some have been working at district sites throughout the pandemic. In theory, ending remote work levels the playing field in LAUSD's workforce.

That said, many Beaudry employees — including about half of CSEA’s members and many of the members Salazar Avila has asked — felt they were much more productive workers at home.

“Having people in the office is a great thought,” Salazar Avila said, “but … you still have most of the district having videoconferencing as a means to hold their meetings,” especially with parents or employees in LAUSD’s far-flung neighborhoods. Other Beaudry-based employees’ most substantial work is done during visits to various campuses; does it really matter where these employees answer their emails?

“Which is it?” Salazar Avila said, “Is it that you’re more effective and more productive when you’re here at work, or is it that we just want the optics to say, ‘Everyone is here back at work’?”

The lack of mask-wearing during the most recent Beaudry outbreak was not an employee protest of the policy, Salazar Avila said. Her union’s employees at Beaudry have expressed deep concerns about COVID-19 safety and mask enforcement.

It’s not clear which employees, or how many employees, were not abiding by the outbreak mask rules.

In its statement, a Department of Public Health spokesperson said it doesn’t comment on outbreak investigations, but in general, said that failing an inspection would stem from a “lack of substantial compliance” with mitigation measures.

The statement concluded that the county “expects this outbreak investigation to be closed shortly.”

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”).