LAUSD’s fall semester began two weeks ago with mandatory, weekly COVID testing for around half a million teachers, staff and students. So far, around 6500 students have either tested positive or are in quarantine because of a possible exposure. That’s about 1.5% of students.
KCRW looks at how the academic year is going so far with Edwin Yau, a social worker at Lincoln High School and Pueblo De Los Ángeles High School; Arian White, a third grade teacher at Baldwin Hills Elementary; and Lamar Freeman, a football coach at Loyola High School, which is a private institution.
Yau says after more than a year of disruption, students appear happy to be back in classrooms, and many consider it a return to normalcy.
“From my observation, the students have been really just all smiles through their eyes, right? Because you can't see them through the mask, but they're excited to be with each other,” Yau says.
Students and mental health
Nonetheless, school days remain full of stark reminders of the pandemic, such as mandatory masks and weekly COVID testing, which have caused some students a lot of stress and anxiety.
Yau says he’s been referring students to mental health therapy on a daily basis. His plan is to try to make mental health resources as visible as possible, so students know they have someone they can turn to in a crisis.
“Sometimes students need to manage their anxiety, or they're stressed out now with the new protocols of COVID, or maybe there's just new pressure of being at school,” Yau says.
For teacher Arian White, the pandemic anxiety is showing in his third grade students. He had his class fill out a survey, and many said they felt apprehensive about being back.
One student is particularly worried about social distancing among parents who huddle together while waiting for their kids to be released from school each day. (Parents aren’t allowed onto campuses this year.)
Social distancing and managing risk
One of White’s biggest challenges is his class size and keeping 25 students in check with social distancing. But he’s doing what he can to keep the students safe.
“I do my best to keep them separate, move around, open doors, bathroom breaks, that sort of thing,” White says. “But it does seem kind of unavoidable.”
With so many kids grouped together, a COVID outbreak is still a risk, even while LAUSD and the state of CA have mandated vaccines for most educators and staff.
Thus, White is asking all parents, colleagues and staff to be patient and understanding as the school navigates this return to in-person instruction.
Yau adds, “I have no idea what's going to happen. But I think staying flexible and being willing to rely on each other as a village is going to be everything.”
COVID on the football field
Lamar Freeman coaches football at Loyola High School, a private institution, and there are already new lessons for athletes.
“We used to teach kids to look a man in his eye and shake his hand firmly. Well, shaking somebody's hands is like a sin now,” White says. “So it's just going through those things and trying to come up with a new normal.”
Freeman says 85% of his athletes have been vaccinated. Masks aren’t required on the field, but they are everywhere else on campus.
So far, the COVID protocols at Loyola are working. The students are happy to get back to life on the field.
“Kids have been locked in the house for a year. So they’re outside now. The feeling I get is they’re willing to do almost anything just to stay outside, to just go back to some type of normalcy,” Freeman says. “It's a happy feeling on campus.”
Across the country: Debating masks, playing catch-up, and expecting another shutdown
While cities like Los Angeles and New York have strict policies around vaccines and masks, for many other places across the U.S., COVID-19 protocols are still a charged issue. That includes the politicization of masks.
Texas and Florida have made headlines for opposing masks in classrooms. Parents nationwide have protested mask mandates, and one parent assaulted a teacher in Northern California over the school’s mask requirement.
“The way that [teachers] are being treated now — as the obstacle to their children having a normal life — is kind of untenable because we don't really pay teachers what they're worth as far as what a college-educated professional is used to making,” says NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz.
She continues, “What they're supposed to be getting is the love of the kids and the position in the community, and they've kind of been denied a lot of that.”
For students, the educational loss from the pandemic can be devastating, especially for those in high school. According to Kamenetz, it could take two years for a student to resume the pre-pandemic trajectory of learning.
Congress has also allocated billions of dollars for school districts to provide the resources needed to help students catch up.
“Instead of having a nice time to plan for a predictable fall, the summer was a time of whiplash, and schools [are] having to again produce a remote learning plan out of nowhere,” Kamenetz says.
It’s still uncertain when kids under 12 years old will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. Until then, classrooms will largely be unvaccinated. And as more parents are being called back to offices, this could be an issue if a student must quarantine from their classmates.
“I think we can bet there's going to be shutdowns. The question is the length of the shutdown and the extent of the shutdown. And I don't think the controversy over this is going away anytime soon,” Kamenetz says.