Students across LA loaded up their backpacks, got decked out in new clothes, and headed to campus to kick off the new academic year this morning. For some, this was their first time back in the classroom since the pandemic started 16 months ago, and that was cause for celebration.
But the return comes amid a new spike in COVID cases in the region and around the country. There is plenty of worry mixed in with the relief and excitement that come with the full reopening of schools.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has some of the strictest health protocols in the nation. Masks are required for everyone, both inside and outside. Students and staff will undergo weekly testing. The district also introduced a digital system called Daily Pass, which allows kids to get a code to get onto campus after their parents or guardians attest to their health.
That’s just the start of what students can expect, says LA Times education reporter Howard Blume.
“Everybody's gonna have their own crayons, their own papers, school supplies, things like that. Sharing is out this year,” Blume says. “You will probably be doing your singing and your band practice outside because it’s a lot safer to do that. You’ll probably be eating outside whenever possible. Social distancing is technically not required, but they are trying to do that whenever possible.”
Blume says the district’s testing regimen will be the biggest undertaking of its kind in the nation.
“LA Unified plans to test 100,000 people every day, every week. So 500,000 tests a week. … They are flying tests up to Northern California to be processed on a private airplane twice a day from the airport in Van Nuys. And it's very expensive. They expect to spend well over $300 million on that effort this year.”
LAUSD is offering students the option of remote learning this year if they are unwilling or unable to return to in-person instruction for health reasons. Blume says only about 3% of students signed up, but that number might have been higher had the district simplified the process.
“For the online option, I'm told that it's been hard to get into the orientation, and there's a 20-page form. Basically, LA Unified and other districts are trying to steer kids back into the classroom because they feel that for the vast majority of students, that's where they need to be, and that they can make it safe.”
There is also the question of making up for what’s been lost academically and socially. Flush with extra funding from the state and the federal governments, LAUSD embarked on a major hiring push over the summer to bring on more teachers and counselors to provide extra support. However, because of difficulty finding qualified applicants, Blume says the district only met a fraction of its hiring goals.
“The district had planned to hire the equivalent of about 4,300 new professionals, and they're more in the neighborhood of 2,000. So less than half of what they had intended,” Blume says. “There will be support. It might even be better than before the pandemic. But it’s far short of what they had hoped for in terms of combatting learning loss or mental health issues that arise from more than a year of isolation and a lack of social development.”