LOS ANGELES — Amid spiking coronavirus cases, Los Angeles Unified School District campuses will remain closed when classes resume next month, Superintendent Austin Beutner said July 13, defying President Donald Trump’s demand that students return to in-person instruction.
“While the new school year will begin in August, it will not start with students at school facilities,” Beutner said. “The health and safety of all in the school community is not something we can compromise.”
Citing Los Angeles-area coronavirus testing rates, which climbed to a seven-day average of 10% positive last week, Beutner said the virus — which is often asymptomatic — could cause schools to become Petri dishes. He called it a public health imperative to keep schools closed.
“Reopening schools will significantly increase interactions between children and adults from different families,” he said. “In one of our high schools, for example, the almost 2,900 students and staff have frequent contact with another 100,000 people.”
The decision comes days after the union representing the district’s teachers announced results of a poll showing that 83% of instructors opposed returning to in-person classes. Union leaders praised the district’s continuation of remote learning.
“In the face of the alarming spike in COVID cases, the lack of necessary funding from the government to open schools safely, and the outsized threat of death faced by working-class communities of color, there really is no other choice that doesn’t put thousands of lives at risk,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said, noting that union leaders will next focus on bargaining with LAUSD to negotiate the terms of remote learning.
The LAUSD on Monday issued a joint statement with the San Diego Unified School District, which also announced it will start the school year with online-only courses. In the statement, the districts acknowledged that schools have successfully reopened in some parts of the world, but said the conditions are different locally.
“One fact is clear — those countries that have managed to safely reopen schools have done so with declining infection rates and on-demand testing available. California has neither,” the statement said. “The skyrocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”
The districts said planning will continue for an eventual return to in-person classes, but no timeline was provided. In the meantime, teachers will be given “expanded training in online education,” and students will receive training “to become better online learners.”
Education leaders at LAUSD are working around the clock to release more detailed information about what the virtual fall semester will look like, Beutner said. Updates should be available in the coming weeks, including possible limited in-person tutoring services to supplement online learning.
“While the school year will begin without students at school facilities, our goal is to welcome students back to school as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do so,” the superintendent emphasized. “I wish we had a crystal ball, but we don’t. We will continue to do the best we can with the information we have at the time.”
Trump has been adamant that school campuses should reopen in the fall, even hinting that the federal government might withhold funding from jurisdictions that fail to return to in-person instruction.
Beutner challenged the federal government to instead allocate money to schools for testing and contact tracing, which he said are critically needed for schools to reopen.
“Testing and contact tracing will cost money,” Beutner said. “Preliminary estimates in Los Angeles Unified would cost $300 per student over the course of the year to test students and staff every week as well as family members of those who test positive for the virus,” he said, noting that the cost of testing all at public schools across the country would be an estimated $15 billion to cover all 50 million students in the United States.
“Federal officials have recently suggested students need to be in school, and like a Nike ad, told educators: ‘Just do it.’ We all know the best place for students to learn is a school setting,” Beutner said. “Well, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz might have said, ‘Tap your heels together three times and say there’s no place like home, and you’ll be there’ — actually returning to schools is not so simple.”
No matter the cost, Beutner said the issue is not one that can be measured in dollars and cents.
“It’s about creating opportunity for children. A good education is a path out of poverty for the students we serve and the promise of a better future for all of them,” he said, noting that Los Angeles Unified’s 75,000 employees serve almost 700,000 students, about 80% of those are from families living in poverty.
Exacerbating that issue, Beutner said an estimated 50% of all LAUSD families have reportedly lost jobs due to the pandemic, according to a recent survey.
Dozens of other school districts in the county will make their own individual decisions on whether to reopen campuses or stick with online learning. The county Department of Public Health July 13 released its protocols for schools to reopen — a list of mandates that schools will have to implement before they are permitted to welcome back students.
Among those mandates will be face coverings for all students and staff — with exceptions for nap times, eating and drinking; limited extracurricular activities, with some groups restricted to online meetings; banning of team sports with no physical distancing; and hand-washing and sanitizing that will be “encouraged and monitored,” especially for younger children, county public health director Barbara Ferrer said.
Ferrer noted that just because the county released the health protocols, it “doesn’t mean that we are authorizing schools to reopen for in-person class instruction.”
“School reopenings will be guided by the state and each school district’s decision on how to best configure learning opportunities during the pandemic,” she said.
Debra Duardo, superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said the goal is to “bring students back to school as safely as possible.”
“Districts have been planning to reopen since the day they closed,” she said. “We know that young people learn best in the classroom, engaged with their teachers and friends. While we are eager to reopen schools, the health and safety of students, staff and families must come first.”
She said opening schools will require extensive supplies of health and safety equipment, and while the state has been providing some materials, “what we have received so far is only a tiny fraction of what is needed to reopen schools.”