Dangerous COVID-19 surge leads to hard shutdown of L.A. public schools

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Originally published in the LA Times

By HOWARD BLUME | STAFF WRITER 

LA Times Dec 7 story-school shutdown
Because of coronavirus surges, school-organized conditioning that began in November for these football players at Taft High will be on hold till at least January as L.A. campuses begin a hard shutdown for student services.(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles campuses will shut down completely beginning Thursday for all in-person tutoring and special services, as prospects for fully reopening the nation’s second-largest school district recede further into 2021 amid a dangerous coronavirus surge, Supt. Austin Beutner announced Monday.

The move immediately affects some 4,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and outdoor conditioning for athletes. Beutner’s emergency order comes on the first day of a sweeping stay-at-home order across much of California and as Los Angeles County’s coronavirus rates reach unprecedented numbers.

“My commitment has been throughout to protect the health and safety of all in the school community,” Beutner said in an interview with The Times. “We have an imperative to get kids back to school as soon as possible the safest way possible. But all that comes through the front door, and the front door is what is COVID in the overall Los Angeles community. Right now it’s at extraordinary and quite dangerous levels.”

The superintendent’s remarks follow those from teachers union president Cecily Myart-Cruz, who said Friday on social media that it has become a question of “if” rather than “when” campuses would reopen for the spring semester.

Beutner is not alone in pulling back from campus-based services, but there’s been a range of responses across California.

The school board in San Bernardino City Unified, which serves about 47,000 students, voted Nov. 17 to keep campuses closed in that district, the state’s eighth-largest, for the remainder of the school year.

In northwest L.A. County, Las Virgenes Unified, with about 11,000 students, has expanded in-person instruction — bringing back third-graders to campus on Monday. About three-quarters of students in transitional kindergarten through second grade had already returned under a county-approved waiver that is available to any school.

The poverty rate in San Bernardino City Unified is about 88% compared with about 12% in Las Virgenes Unified, reflecting a broader trend of campuses being more likely to reopen in more affluent communities. This divide separating the poor from the more prosperous also is reflected in infection rates. Lower-income areas have been hit harder.

In counties adjacent to Los Angeles, campuses had been been allowed to open while infection rates were lower — and they can stay open under state guidelines. However, campuses that had not reopened must stay closed.

The picture across the nation also is varied. Campuses in Philadelphia are closed. Meanwhile, parents in New York City on Monday dealt with another roller coaster twist — as elementary campuses reopened in the nation’s largest school system.

Beutner said a similar scenario could have been happened in Los Angeles if infection rates were as low as in New York City.

L.A. Unified was barely beginning to unlock the schoolyard gates — with fewer than 1% of students receiving any in-person services. In early October, the district began offering one-on-one tutoring. And it later began instruction for groups as large as three and providing other services, such as assessments for students with disabilities. The goal was to prioritize the most vulnerable students.

Negotiations are underway with the teachers union to extend a distance-learning agreement set to expire at the end of the year.

In remarks prepared for a Monday broadcast, Beutner said the crisis necessitates a “Marshall Plan for Schools,” alluding to the all-in, high-cost program by the United States to rebuild Europe after World War II, an effort that was perceived as promoting the common good.

The latter-day plan, he said, should contain four essential elements: creating a safe school environment; school-based coronavirus testing and contact tracing; mental-health support for children; and funding for in-person instruction next summer.

L.A. Unified, he added, already is planning “for a summer session like no other” to help students “recover lost learning opportunities, add enrichment to their lives and help them deal with the anxiety and trauma this crisis has brought into their homes.”

Well over a billion dollars in federal COVID relief has flowed to the nation’s schools already, but Beutner said the need is much greater.

“The nationwide cost of a school-relief program like I’m proposing would be about $125 billion,” less than 20%, he said, of the total earmarked for the Paycheck Protection Program that has provided ultra-low-interest loans to businesses. “That’s a small price to pay to give millions of children a shot at the American dream and their families a chance to get back to work.”

He also called for teachers and other school staff to be near the top of the list for receiving vaccines.

In the interview, he said, schools should be prioritized for reopening ahead of card rooms, bars, gyms, indoor malls and even restaurants.

“Schools must come first, not last,” Beutner said.

At the same time, he added, idled employees should receive government subsidies until their work can resume.

The district on Monday also released some results of a parent survey, indicating that more than a third of parents wanted to send their children back to campus. Those who responded more recently, said Beutner, were less eager to return to campus, opting instead to remain with distance learning.

Advocacy groups had questioned whether the district was working hard enough to reach parents regarding this high-stakes decision.

In the interview, Beutner made it clear that the survey had evolved to serve as a snapshot and a planning tool. Parents, he said, would be surveyed again later. At that point, he said, more details would be available about the district’s plans to offer a modified, in-person schedule when it becomes safe to do so.