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L.A. campuses unlikely to reopen until at least January, school board leaders say

Los Angeles public school campuses are unlikely to reopen before January, at the earliest, as the county’s rising COVID-19 infections prevent in-person classes for the vast majority of students in the nation’s second-largest school district, two leaders from the school board told The Times.

L.A. Unified School District Board of Education President Richard Vladovic and Vice President Jackie Goldberg cited similar concerns in separate interviews: safety foremost, but also the academic disruption that would result from changing schedules and classes so close to the end of the semester.

“If you look at a calendar, it would be difficult to do,” Vladovic said of a mid-semester switch. “I think best-case scenario is there’ll be some form of return in January, whatever that is.”

“It’s more complicated than anyone could imagine on a school site — the complexities and the interrelationships, because of our varied instructional programming,” he added.

“We have thematic approaches, magnets all over the district,” he said, referring to special academic programs that draw in students from across the sprawling school system. “And siblings don’t necessarily go in the same cohort. So we have people all over.”

Goldberg talked of additional complications, including the need for last-minute classroom changes, because some students would remain in distance-only learning, and some teachers would be unable to return to campus because of health issues that could put them at risk.

“This is finals time for the high-schoolers and the end-of-the-semester assessments for all the other grades,” Goldberg said. “Why would we want to go back in December? Which would be probably the earliest we could possibly go. ... This is the wrong time to do that.”

Goldberg added that L.A. Unified hasn’t completed a final plan for hybrid education and has not yet surveyed parents on whether they would prefer to remain online-only or opt for a schedule that is staggered to keep classes small and allow for social distancing. Hybrid plans typically call for students coming onto campus part-time while continuing to do much of their schooling from home.

She said she hesitated to speak openly on prospects for a near-term reopening out of concern that even January might prove too soon, a fear Vladovic also raised.

“Honest to goodness, we really do not know, do we?” Goldberg said. “We do not know what’s going to happen with the virus. What happens if it doesn’t slow down at all because it’s winter and there are more cases — and we can’t go back in January?”

Both board members spoke for themselves, not on behalf of the district. Both praised teachers and other district staff for responding to the crisis with creativity and long hours.

Adding to the frustration of parents and educators is the fact that many schools elsewhere are reopening in significant ways. Some of Los Angeles County’s other 79 school districts — and many private schools — are taking advantage of waivers that allow classes for students in transitional kindergarten through second grade. State rules also allow small groups of students with special needs to attend classes on campus, up to 25% of enrollment at any given time.

L.A. Unified has not yet provided these options, although it is in negotiations with the United Teachers Los Angeles union to ramp up services. The district is also well into developing an ambitious COVID-19 testing program, designed to encompass K-12, preschool and adult school students and employees — 700,000 people in total — to create a data-driven path to safely reopening campuses.

Parent Danna Rosenthal said any sort of return would be an improvement — “even if it means three weeks before the end of the semester.”

“My kids are suffering,” said Rosenthal, who has a son at Warner Avenue Elementary School in Westwood and another in a special program for students with disabilities. “They are mentally going downhill, have anxiety and depressed. They miss their friends, they miss routine, they miss seeing their teacher in person. Lastly, neither one is putting the same kind of effort into their work.”

Many families in other districts, however, are choosing to remain online even when they can go back. In New York City, the nation’s largest district, just over a fourth of students have returned to in-person instruction, Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week.

L.A. Unified has been accelerating efforts to provide one-on-one tutoring — both online and in person, which is permitted under state rules.

“In light of the logistical challenges to reopen as we approach the holidays, we’re expanding our existing child care and in-person tutoring programs to more immediately support as many students and families as we can,” said board member Nick Melvoin.

One such move was announced Tuesday. District officials said they would set aside $1 million to help some 30,000 students who are in foster care and who are members of homeless families. The goal is provide a supervised place to study, access to child care and one-on-one tutoring. Care packages will include surge outlets, noise-canceling headphones, school supplies and personal protective equipment such as face coverings.

Vladovic and Goldberg said publicly what other officials and staff have discussed quietly for weeks — that the best opportunity to bring students back during the fall semester already has passed. And the blame for that falls on the virus itself.

The latest state evaluation, released Tuesday, puts L.A. County firmly in Tier 1 (purple), the worst category, signifying that there is widespread transmission of the coronavirus in the community. And a key indicator — average daily cases per 100,000 people — has gotten worse in recent weeks.

Even if case rates start dropping immediately, it could take several weeks for them to decrease enough to begin a countdown toward reopening, according to the state’s rubric.

For L.A. County to enter Tier 2 (red), it must qualify for this tier for two weeks. Once the county is officially in the red tier, it must stay there for two more weeks before schools can reopen. A setback could restart the clock.

Even in the unlikely scenario that L.A. County immediately entered the red tier countdown, campuses could not reopen until after Nov. 23. But that’s Thanksgiving week, when L.A. Unified schools are closed. Even if schools were ready to go by Nov. 30, just three weeks would remain before winter break.

In remarks during his regular Monday broadcast, L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner may have laid the groundwork for a difficult official announcement.

In contrast to L.A. County, Beutner said, “the Bay Area remains at levels well below the state guidelines for schools to consider reopening, but both Oakland and San Francisco have announced they’ll not return to schools before January.”

He added: “The health and safety of all in the school community is not something we can compromise on.”

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