Debate over returning to in-person classes heats up as Californians face likelihood of all remote learning in 2021

Baldwin Hills School, like many other LAUSD campuses, have stayed empty for long months during this coronavirus pandemic. With distance learning, grades and attendance are down, and there’s a renewed push to get students back to in-person classes. Photo by Amy Ta.

The damage caused by months of distance learning is coming into sharper focus. Attendance is down. Grades are plummeting. And many parents say kids are feeling isolated and depressed. All this is leading to a renewed push to get students back into the classroom — or at least for urgent conversations about how to make that happen.

California Teachers Association (CTA) President E. Toby Boyd and LA Times editorial writer Karin Klein agree that reopening schools should be a top priority for state and local governments. But they have different views on when and how to do that. 

Klein says we need to make final plans now, so kids can go back as soon as we turn the corner on the current surge. Boyd, a kindergarten teacher, says educators want a more cautious approach. The CTA this week demanded that the California Legislature maintain pandemic restrictions on school reopenings. And the group is opposing a bill that would force schools to reopen in March, after a full year of remote learning.

First, here’s the interview with Karin Klein:

 KCRW: The virus is still spreading out of control. Why do you think now is the time to start taking steps to bring students back to the classroom?

 Karin Klein: Most schools are operating very safely. The ones we see in California certainly are. The plans that LAUSD has for when they reopen classrooms are extremely safe. We're talking about masks, plexiglass dividers, smaller classes, so that they only go part time, so that there aren't too many kids in the classroom at any one time keeping social distance. And then LAUSD and a lot of other school districts have replaced their air filtration systems to be top of the line, state of the art, which we know now is a very important thing.

 How would you address concerns about older teachers and those with underlying health conditions that put them at high risk of getting seriously ill from COVID? 

Karin Klein: I think we need to do whatever we can to protect the vulnerable teachers. They would obviously be the last ones to go into a physical classroom, and we would try to use their talents for remote work and tutoring work to the extent that we possibly can. We would separate them as much as we can. 

 I think the best thing to do would be to first bring kids in incrementally, look at how safe it is. It's not that older people and vulnerable people are more likely to catch the illness. It's that they are more likely to have a serious case if they do catch the illness. So I think we start bringing people in who are much more safe with it, who are much less likely to get a serious case. And we see how it goes. 

I think the problem we've had is that … we're opening all restaurants, all outdoor restaurants, all indoor restaurants, whichever category instead of tapering in and looking at how things are going. Once it looks safe, if we're not getting cases, if teachers are not getting sick, I think more vulnerable teachers might feel more comfortable coming in. We will get more data also about what does happen to vulnerable teachers in classrooms elsewhere in the nation. We haven't seen big problems in Europe.

What kind of evidence is coming out of Europe? A lot of fear has been that schools could be super spreader sites. 

Karin Klein: We've just not seen that in Europe. … I'm not going to say they haven't had school-related outbreaks. But we have not seen serious outbreaks there. We have not seen schools as contributors to community disease, which was one of our big concerns. There was an actual study done in England about what happened in school over the summer when they reopened, and they had rising rates, and they did not see schools as a significant contributor to COVID rates.

Should children or teachers with underlying conditions be required to come back to the classroom? Or would it be possible to make other accommodations for them?

Karin Klein: I would really like to make accommodations. Again, it's the same thing as being vulnerable. There's the age thing about vulnerable [people] and there's also the underlying condition part of vulnerable [people]. We need to make allowances wherever we can. I think we need to make allowances for the fact that a lot of parents are just not going to send their kids back. They are very afraid. If the parents are in vulnerable groups themselves, they might be managing fine with their kid at home, and they might feel unwilling to take the chance of COVID coming in the door. I think we need to protect the people for whom the science says this person needs the most protection.

Now one thing that seems pretty clear is that schools must have a system of testing and tracing in place. What else is needed, and are our schools in California ready to go?

Karin Klein: Some of them are. Most of the ones that have opened already knew that they needed it because parents were very nervous. LAUSD has a terrific system set up. They haven't been able to use it much. They only provided schooling to 4000 kids who were in deep need of extra help. They used it with them and they didn't have problems, they didn't see cases cropping up. But they have had a system where kids would be tested, I believe it was once a week, possibly more, and staff would be tested. 

But not just tested, they would get the results, in essence before school starts the next day. So immediately before you have to start the next school day, if there's been a case, and you can call everybody and say this school is closed for the day until we figure out what's going on. You don't necessarily do that for a single case, but if you see a few cases, you've got some kind of outbreak. That doesn't mean you have school transmission. Those four cases could have come from the surrounding community, but for safety sake, you're going to calm things down, close things down probably, and take a look at where those kids probably got sick. 

 Now, the interview with E. Toby Boyd:

 KCRW: A bill has been introduced in the California Legislature that could force schools in California to reopen in March. The California Teachers Association (CTA) has come out against that plan. It’s urging lawmakers to go slow, pointing to the current surge in coronavirus cases that's been sweeping across the state. When will it be safe to open schools?

 Toby Boyd: We need to make sure that mask wearing is in place, social distancing, good ventilation, cleaning, testing and tracing. Everything that I just mentioned is going to take dollars. And that's one thing that's scarce. We're waiting for the relief from the federal government to come in. But you know, here in California, most of the counties are in purple. And some of them are double, triple, quadruple, and sometimes even nine times the purple standard that’s in places that are most severe. And we feel that because of the severity, the lack of beds, we shouldn't open anytime soon.

KCRW: Do you think it would be possible for schools in California to take precautions and perhaps try a hybrid arrangement where kids attend in-person classes half the week and virtual the rest?

Toby Boyd: That has to be safe. And that's the key, I’m sure that they have the precautionary measures up in the schools over in Europe. So we're just asking for the same thing here. The class sizes over in Europe are probably a lot smaller than ours. Some of our classes are 35, 40 students and crammed in the space that they normally would consider a regular classroom, that's impossible. So yes, you may have 15, but still, are you going to be able to do the social distancing that should be in place?

My educators, they want to be back in front of the classroom. They understand that the … student learns better that way. The social, emotional learning is so much richer. And that's where they want to be, but they can't do it if they have the fear of possibly getting ill, or someone in their family.

Some people have suggested starting with students in the very early grades, and perhaps start with teachers who have no health complications. What would you say to that? 

Toby Boyd: It's going to be up to those educators that they want to go into the classroom and that space. Everything that you just mentioned, even the younger children, it's going to be difficult to have them wear a mask. Remember, I'm a kindergarten educator, and having them sit at a table and try to start off a day sometimes is difficult. So realistically trying to get them to wear a mask all the time, it might be difficult.

The CTA has called for students and school employees to have daily health assessments before entering campus. What would be involved in it? 

Toby Boyd: It was originally the temperature check. But the more that we learn about this virus, the more we understand that it has to be a little bit more involved. So just because the temperature is not 104 or 101, whatever the level is, doesn't mean that that child could not possibly have the virus. It just means that they don't have a fever at that time. So maybe it's going to be the quick antigen test, and then they can see if they have the virus, if it's if it's present. It's whatever is necessary, according to the public health department, in order to try to screen the children before they enter the school and adults too.

You’ve also said that schools need access to health services, including nurses and medically trained personnel to assist and monitor student and employee health. This comes at a time when many schools in California often don't have a full-time nurse.

Toby Boyd: So true. Sometimes a district will have one nurse for five schools. And that's approximately, I would say 10-20,000 students. And to have the realistic thought that that particular nurse would be able to offer support to all those students is not feasible. So yes, we would need more nurses. 

… There has to be a school safety plan that's in place. It has to be transparent and accurate and has to have protocols that are standardized that every school would have to meet, and not this hodgepodge that happens right now because of the various counties. If we had something of that sort, and we could guarantee the safety of our students, then we can have that discussion about schools reopening.



Darrell Satzman