Mikhail Zinshteyn / EdSourceThe Los Angeles Unified school board room in the district’s downtown headquarters.Mikhail Zinshteyn / EdSourceThe Los Angeles Unified school board room in the district’s downtown headquarters.This story was updated with quotes from L.A. Unified’s superintendent, the United Teachers Los Angeles president and Gov. Gavin Newsom.Schools in California’s two largest districts — Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified — will not reopen for in-person learning when the school year begins next month, the districts announced Monday, saying that it would not be safe to do so while the coronavirus continues to spread.
Students in those districts will instead continue to learn at home, as they did for the final months of last school year.
“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 skyrocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control,” the two districts said in a joint statement.
L.A. Unified begins the new school year Aug. 18 and San Diego Unified begins on Aug. 31. The districts said they plan to return to in-person learning at some point during the 2020-21 school year, “as soon as public health conditions allow.” For both districts, the next step will be to negotiate with their teachers’ unions over guidelines for distance learning this fall.
With their decision to begin the year with distance learning, L.A. Unified and San Diego Unified now join a growing number of districts across the state that in recent days have announced they won’t be able to reopen school campuses next month. Last week, Oakland Unified and San Bernardino City Unified were among the districts that said they would opt to start the new school year with distance learning.
The union representing teachers in L.A. Unified last week also called for school facilities to remain closed at the start of the school year, declaring it would not be safe to open them. A poll of the union’s members found that 83% of them were against reopening school campuses.
The district’s superintendent, Austin Beutner, made clear Monday that he agreed, saying in a televised speech that the “health and safety of all in the school community is not something we can compromise.”
Beutner noted that infection rates and cases of the coronavirus are continuing to increase in Los Angeles County, which has more cases than any other county in the state. Within the last two weeks, the county has recorded nearly 36,000 new cases, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“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,” Beutner said.
In another sign that the threat of the virus is growing in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday ordered every county in the state to close many indoor operations, including restaurants, wineries and movie theaters. He also ordered 30 counties, including Los Angeles, to close additional operations such as fitness centers and places of worship.
“This virus is not going away anytime soon. I hope all of us recognize that if we were still connected to some notion that somehow, when it gets warm, it’s going to go away or somehow it’s going to take summer months or weekends off, this virus has done neither,” Newsom said.
Given the state of the pandemic, it “will not be enough” to reopen schools by reconfiguring school schedules and encouraging risk mitigation strategies such as washing hands, wearing masks and physical distancing, Beutner said Monday.
Instead, returning to school campuses would also require the district to regularly test students and staff for the coronavirus, Beutner said. And it would be “equally important” for the district to trace individuals who have come into contact with someone who has the virus. But to conduct sufficient testing and contact tracing of nearly 600,000 students, in addition to school staff, would cost money that the district does not currently have, Beutner has said.
On Monday, Beutner also dismissed “federal officials” who have suggested that schools should reopen for in-person learning next month and urged them to provide more stimulus relief to schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump have both attempted to pressure schools into reopening.
Beutner estimated that it would cost about $300 per student over the course of a school year to test every student and staff member each week, and said those dollars “pale in comparison” to the importance of reopening schools.
“The federal government could help by providing the funding schools need to make it safe and appropriate for students and staff to return,” he said.
Beutner added Monday that there may be a “lifelong impact” for some students if they can’t return to school sometime soon, especially for young students, English learners and students with disabilities.
“A good education is the path out of poverty for many of the students we serve and the promise of a better future for all of them. Children need to be in school to get the best possible education,” he said.
In the meantime, though, students in Los Angeles will learn exclusively online. The district is currently bargaining with United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union, over distance learning guidelines for the fall.
After school campuses closed in the spring, the union successfully negotiated an agreement that gave teachers significant flexibility to set their own work schedules and did not require them to teach using live video platforms.
Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the union, said in an interview Monday that the spring guidelines were put into place in a “true emergency fashion.” She said the union is open to more “robust” requirements for instruction in the fall, but said it was too early to say specifically what that would mean. The union’s bargaining team is scheduled to have its next negotiating session with district administrators on Thursday, Myart-Cruz said.
“I think our union and educators all around are talking about having a robust crisis learning program moving forward,” she said.
Beutner said the district will share final plans for online learning by the first week of August, but added that it will include a “regular schedule with standards-based instruction” as well as “daily, live engagement between teachers and students.”
“We’re working to balance the learning needs of students, the impact the virus is having on working families and the health and safety of all in the school community. You have my commitment to do the best we can,” he said.
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