Many Los Angeles Unified School District parents may recall feeling fearful, confused or uninformed when they sent their kids back to the classroom for in-person learning last year. Is my kid’s school COVID-free? What happens if and when my child gets sick?
Few questions from parents were answered by the district in a timely fashion. The sluggish communication during the time of uncertainty forced two frustrated LAUSD moms to turn to old-fashioned grassroots campaigns to force LA Unified to do better.
Jenna Schwartz and Nicolle Fefferman co-founded “Parents Supporting Teachers” in December 2018. Their advocacy group that started on Facebook has grown to 28,000 members, who actively exchange information and opinions about LAUSD policies.
One of the most fervently discussed topics in December 2021 was whether the district should mandate widespread COVID screening amid the Omicron surge. Fefferman says members were asking whether the district has plans to navigate the post-holiday surge.
“It didn't feel like there was communication or a sense of urgency,” recalls Fefferman, a mom of three LAUSD students. “We, along with our community members, decided to deluge school board members’ email boxes and voicemails, demanding that they maintain their commitment to safety.”
Deluge, they did. The two leaders began circulating email templates and sample scripts for calling the district.
“We said, ‘All right, people. This is what you need to do. Here's a template. You can modify it as you need,’” remembers Schwartz, a mom of two. “Basically we were demanding baseline testing. We were demanding that every student have a test before going back to school.”
A couple of days after the floods of emails and phone calls, the district announced that all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, would have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before they can return to campuses for the spring semester.
Baseline testing was not the first incident in which “Parents Supporting Teachers” was one step ahead of the district.
A few months before convincing LA Unified to conduct baseline testing, the advocacy group had produced and circulated a Google spreadsheet database to track coronavirus outbreaks at all LAUSD schools. The district had its own dashboard, but many had complained that it wasn’t comprehensive. The official COVID tracker by LAUSD has since been updated.
The two LAUSD moms now have their eyes set on a new project: trying to push the district to a better communicator. Schwartz and Fefferman think the second largest school district in the country often takes too long to share urgent messages with families.
“I think that part of the problem is there's too many steps to the communication before it actually comes out. There needs to be some stronger decision makers who are utilizing all the different media,” Schwartz says. “When there is information that needs to be shared, it should be texted, it should be emailed, and there should be a phone call. It should be accessible to everyone.”
Fefferman and Schwartz foresee some improvement in the district’s ways of communication with the arrival of the new superintendent, Alberto Carvalho.
“I’m very excited because I do think our incoming superintendent seems like he's very proactive in terms of communication,” Schwartz says. “I'm very, very excited to see what he's gonna bring to the table in terms of communication.”
The two founders of the advocacy group say that the district has been responding favorably to their suggestions and ideas, partly because they avoid scorched-earth approaches since their own children attend LAUSD schools.
“We have viewed the district as a partner. We do our best to work with, to support, and to hold accountable,” Fefferman explains. “We want LAUSD to be better for everybody.”
Schwartz also emphasizes that “Parents Supporting Teachers” was founded based on the principle that the autonomous group looks for solutions together with the district.
“We're just two moms. We're not getting paid. We're complete volunteers. And we're not beholden to anyone. So we are very comfortable holding every group accountable.”