President Biden wants to get schools reopened during his first 100 days in office — a goal he emphasized in his March 11 national address. California has been a major roadblock, but on Thursday, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which is the state’s second largest district, moved closer to helping Biden achieve that goal.
The LAUSD board voted unanimously on a deal with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the teachers union, to reopen elementary schools in mid-April and middle and high schools in late April. The rank-and-file teachers are to vote on the plan next week.
The tentative agreement says pre-schoolers would be able to return for a full day of in-person instruction. Elementary students would be able to return for half-days, using a hybrid of in-person plus remote learning.
Middle and high school students would return to classrooms but take online courses there, and in-person instruction would happen only when seeing their advisors.
Mark Gozonsky, a high school English teacher at Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts in downtown LA, says he will vote yes on the deal next week.
What does he like about the deal? Mainly that students will get to see each other again, he says. “That is a crying need. … If students can get to greet each other … that's going to be more important than any sort of academic rigor that we tend to apply.”
“Zoom in a (class)room”
Ghazal Yashouafar is an attorney and parent of three kids who are in seventh grade, fifth grade, and second grade. She’s been protesting to get schools reopened. She says that the deal is great for her kids in elementary school, but her middle schooler is left out.
“I was just in a Zoom meeting with the principal of the middle school. And he basically called it ‘Zoom in a room.’ And while it's great, especially for those kids that haven't had any interactions this past year, it's really not enough. … We asked how are they going to go outside and play? They said no, that teachers at some point throughout the day will walk them outside for fresh air, and they will be walked back inside to do Zoom at school. They deserve more.”
Gozonsky says whatever Zoom lessons happen, they should involve students turning to each other and talking about the material. Yashouafar acknowledges that this would benefit her seventh grader.
However, she notes, “We were explained that each middle school and high school, they have home rooms, and the kid goes sit [sic] in their home room with the homeroom teacher, who's opted to come back, sitting at his desk or her desk. And then they would all be doing Zoom on their own.”
She says the homeroom teacher (aka advisory teacher) also instructs all of their other classes from their single desk, and each student sits at their own desk at school to do Zoom.
Reflecting on a year of tough at-home schooling
What’s the past year been like for Yashouafar, whose three kids have been learning at home? She says at 8 a.m., when she and her husband leave the house to work full time, their kids are on their own.
“My 7 year old has had to do Zoom on his own. … I'm not there to help him log in, if he has any questions. So what happens? My 13 year old has had to assume a lot of responsibility for his two younger siblings. And I mean, I consider myself very lucky that they've been on top of it. But as a parent, it feels terrible having to leave the house and expecting your three kids to figure it out on their own,” she explains.
Then when she comes home at 5 p.m., she takes her kids outside and makes sure they complete everything that she couldn’t do with them during the day. She also makes sure they have some interaction with other kids.
“I can definitely see the days where my kids are home alone, without any friend or anybody there. And I come home, they're angry, they're fed up. My 7 year old, he has so much energy, he needs to be out in the yard running, playing around, laughing.”
She says it’s a dream come true that her two younger kids will return to physical classrooms and have a teacher around. “Anything is better than nothing, because they need to be in school. But for the older one, it's the teens that I feel they got really cheated in this system.”
Emotional relief of being back together may help with learning
Gozonsky doesn’t exactly agree that LAUSD “cheated” students. He says the district has done a good job of “steering a coherent course” and feeding kids during the pandemic.
“The scenario that I'm hearing here … everybody with their headphones on, and the teacher teaching in a different class from what the students are learning, it has a touch of the surreal to it. But yeah, the students certainly in my school, they're down with the surreal,” he says. “First of all, it's going to be so different. … Novelty tends to inspire engagement, so I think that'll be on [the] educator side. And … that kind of deep, emotional feeling of being back together where you belong, I think that's going to make a lot of the learning that we do at the end of this year stick.”
How have Gozonsky’s students fared over the past year? It’s a mixed bag, he says. “My students would probably say that our classes have been engaging. They would also say they're sick to death of doing Zoom.”
So doing Zoom in a classroom is better than doing Zoom at home? “I think sitting at home is killing kids. And I think that being in a classroom, in proximity to other teens, is going to do students and at least this teacher world of good.”
“A knuckleball at best” for LAUSD over the past year
Yashouafar says she’s grateful for this shift back to classrooms. However, she notes, “It's been a whole year, they could have figured something out. They should have been prepared. There would or might be an option that we would go back.”
Gozonsky disagrees that they’ve had a year to figure things out.
“This whole thing has been a knuckleball at best. A lot of it has been crisis response. It's not like we've all been in grad school, coming up with like sterling lesson plans to do once we get out of the most contagious part of the pandemic. So it sounds like whatever admittedly complicated arrangement we have for the end of the year, I think we both agree that it's a start. … I just like the idea of us … being together to learn,” he says.