Nearly a quarter of LAUSD students missed school this week. It’s a marked improvement over the last week, when about a third of kids were out, and around 2,000 teachers stayed home after testing positive for COVID. It’s caused major disruptions in the classroom, as the debate reignites over whether kids are better off learning in-person or online.
Sandra Ruiz, a math teacher at Los Angeles High School and the parent of a fourth grader, says the last two weeks have been a rollercoaster. In the last week alone, Ruiz notes that about half of her students stayed home.
“The first week felt like a ghost town. We had a little bit over 300 students missing. And we also had about 30 to 35 staff members out. So we moved on with the day as best we could,” Ruiz tells KCRW. “I'm an algebra teacher. So I knew that I wouldn't necessarily be starting the semester with immediate algebra. So we had to do a lot of socio-emotional lessons, a lot of getting-to-know-you activities because we're missing, in some cases, more than 50% of our classes.”
Before the current COVID surge hit, Ruiz planned a comprehensive strategy to get her students working in groups and being immersed in math. That’s changed in the days since.
“I'm operating as if one day, we will return to online learning. So everything that I am teaching, I have to post on Schoology. I create videos for the students at home to try to keep up and follow along,” she explains. “I made sure that nothing in the first two weeks has a hard due date. So that, again, if people are out sick or don't feel comfortable coming, they're still able to experience their learning, even though they may not be physically on campus with us.”
Maggie Pulley is an educator and parent of three kids, including a seventh grader at the Girls Academic Leadership Academy on the same campus of Los Angeles High School.
Pulley says although her daughter returned to school last week, she’s had to stay home a few days this week because she tested positive for COVID. Now, Pulley is scrambling to figure out how her daughter will be able to continue her learning, since she doesn’t have access to virtual learning materials.
As an LAUSD parent herself, Ruiz says she was excited to send her daughter back to school this month, partly because she was kept home due to not being vaccinated. Looking at the current surge, Ruiz says postponing classes might have helped flatten the curve, but she understands the political and financial pressures the district is facing.
Pulley suggests a postponement of the semester could’ve done more harm than good.
“[COVID spread] has been rampant. But I do not really think that not opening school would have flattened the curve in any significant way. I think that this outbreak was going to happen and is going to continue to happen, as it will. I do hope and think that the curve, as steep as it is, will come down really quickly,” Pulley shares.
Pulley adds that her other two kids haven’t fared well when they were doing virtual learning.
“My fourth grader, he just did not do well on Zoom. He felt all the disruption in his daily life, his schedule, [and with] all the uncertainty that we were all facing. He felt it really strongly and it was a really hard time for him,” Pulley says. “And even being back to school all of fall semester, that damage has not resolved. It's something that we're still dealing with. He's struggling a little bit, and I think the ground underneath him still doesn't feel stable.”
And although Ruiz’s daughter initially loved learning virtually, the novelty soon wore off when she stayed home last fall because she wasn’t vaccinated. She attended classes through City of Angels, LAUSD’s central hub for virtual learning. Ruiz says it was an entirely different experience for her daughter.
“It was a completely different ballgame because it was no longer a face she was familiar with. It was a random teacher through City of Angels. And it took us seven weeks to get placed with a teacher that was her grade level.”
But despite the challenges, Ruiz says she would do it all over again: “The answer for me is yes. Because we assess the risk. My parents are both older and they help take care of my daughter when my husband and I are at work. And just the thought of her bringing it home to them — and they're both high-risk — that wasn't worth it to me because I know how vital they've been in raising her.”
Teachers still don’t know the answers
Ruiz describes the last two years of the pandemic as a never-ending whirlwind of just trying her best as a teacher, whether that was through online-only classes or hybrid learning. And now, she feels there still isn’t a perfect approach to teaching during a pandemic.
“The fact of the matter is: We don't know, at the end of this all, what the right answer is because we've never done this before. We don't know if the transmission will continue [or] will not continue. Will we see the other side of the search in a week, in a month, in a year, in three more years?”
What is clear to Ruiz, however, is that scores of teachers are out sick, and it’s affecting the classroom experience. She uses the example of schools that don’t have enough staff, so educators are forced to combine classes, which can create an environment where COVID can spread.
“When [teachers] are out and we have no subs, the only other option is to combine classes. … Here we are trying to get on the other side of the surge, but logistically speaking, we also have to combine classrooms and put more bodies in a room with less ventilation in the middle of a pandemic,” Ruiz says. “Then principals are spending four to five hours of their day trying to contact trace. And there is no 100% way of knowing if we had transmissions in school.”