LAUSD’s fall semester starts next month. No one knows what it will look like

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Will Baldwin Hills School, and other LAUSD campuses, reopen for in-person instruction next month? There’s no clear answer from LAUSD officials. Photo by Amy Ta.

School is scheduled to begin on August 18 for more than half a million students in LAUSD. But as coronavirus cases surge again in LA County, frazzled parents are wondering if in-person classes will actually happen.  

LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner earlier this week, “No decision has been made about a return to school facilities. But it's reasonable to assume instruction will include an online component for most students.” 

KCRW speaks with Howard Blume, LA Times education reporter.

KCRW: On August 18, what's going to happen? Does anybody know?

Howard Blume: “I don't think so, to be honest. The big development this week was this so-called top secret call between the county public health director and school districts across the county, saying that they all need to be prepared for possibly going 100% with online learning, based on the spike in the coronavirus in Los Angeles County. That's pretty startling right there. And the truth is, the situation is changing day by day. 

And I spoke with the school board president this very morning. … He doesn't know what's going to happen. He's feeling that if they know by August 1, that would be a good thing.

I feel for parents. In an anxious time, this only adds to the anxiety that everybody's feeling that they don't even know how to plan. They can't know how to plan.”

What is LAUSD planning if fall instruction is 100% online? Do they have the resources now? Because when remote learning started in March, it was a bit of a scramble. 

“It was a bit of a scramble. So they have enough computers. They think they have enough hotspots. 

What they don't have any control over are the conditions in the home. Parents are not trained to be teachers or exam proctors. So you can have a computer setup at home. You can have an internet hotspot. But you may not have a good environment to study. There may not be the right supervision. For the younger kids, they need that social interaction, that actual FaceTime. 

I spoke to a special education teacher, and she talked about this student who's actually pressing his face into the computer monitor because he was so desperate to have contact with this teacher. 

This is not an ideal situation by any means, but you're not going to die if you do education this way. This was a big mess at first. And this is not the fault of LA Unified. I mean, we can beat up on them for many things. But it's not their fault. They had to become an online school district overnight.

Over the summer, they've tried to add some graded courses. As you recall, they essentially removed grading from the spring semester. So they're trying to use the summer to kind of feel what it would be like to push things forward more effectively in an online manner. There have been some glitches, but presumably, they're getting more and more practice all the time. 

It's never going to be as good as traditional school. But on the other hand, I guess you're not going to die.”

Is LAUSD looking at other models? New York City is going forward with a plan for students to spend some days at school and some days not at school? 

“That is the plan. That has to be the plan under the health guidelines because classrooms are not big enough to accommodate all the students with social distancing. 

So under the current health guidelines, there is literally no way that you can open in a traditional way. And if you can't get all the students into the classroom, then you have to have a staggered schedule, so that students come into the classrooms in waves. … That means there are … ongoing childcare burdens for parents, as people try to get back to work. 

New York is a very dense place, so they may have worse problems than Los Angeles. At least in Los Angeles, you can do some innovations like holding some classes outside because the weather is better. So there's things you can do that might make it a little easier for us than New York. But by and large, we're looking at a staggered schedule and part-time on campus.”

What are the teachers unions saying about this? Are they saying they won’t teach on campus if it’s not safe?

“They kind of are. But I don't necessarily think that the school district is in great disagreement. They don't particularly want to bring people back if it's unsafe either. I mean, if you're an economist or if you're the Trump administration, you can balance these plus-minus equations, right? Well, what's the cost of a few teachers dying or a custodian dying? 

But if you're a teachers union, you're not in a position where even one teacher can die or a librarian. You have to have a zero tolerance policy as you represent your employees as far as safety risk goes. So that's going to make them hard bargainers.”

Whether or not to reopen, are these district decisions? Or can the state override districts? 

“The state can say, ‘You’re not opening.’ I think it's a little harder for the state to say, ‘You are opening.’ I mean, first of all, schools will be open and education programs will be open. It's a question whether campuses will be reopened. 

And I suppose the state could exert the power of the purse if they wanted to force campuses to reopen. But that seems very unlikely. I think they're going to let school districts choose how they want to engage in learning. But there are new rules in place that the state hopes will make sure that learning takes place. 

Because in the spring, there's a free pass. … The state was saying, ‘This is an emergency. We're not going to hold you to any standards of accountability. You are not required to make sure that students learn. You are not required to take attendance.’

Now they're saying, ‘You can do this the way you have to do this. But we do require that you take attendance. And we do require that you show evidence of student learning.’ So that's kind of where the differences [are] in terms of the state right now.”

Is the state saying money is contingent upon that? 

“I suppose they are. But they're not really counting on doing that. At a certain level, everybody wants learning to happen. Basically, school districts are pretty much onboard. They're going to find some way to take daily attendance. They're going to try to improve their learning accountability. I don't think anybody's intending to buck the system. So nobody's really expecting the state to levy any kind of financial penalties. 

Now the federal government may threaten to levy financial penalties. In fact, President Trump has already done so. There's a question about whether he has the authority to do so, or the ultimate willingness to do so. Because at the same time, the federal government, other people in the Trump administration are talking about giving schools more help to assist in reopenings. 

So if there's any money not going to happen, it's going to be from the federal government, which is responsible for about 10% of funding for schools. That's a lot of money in terms of your operations. But even that, one has to wonder if that would really happen. I do not expect that to happen at the state level.”

It’s expensive to retrofit the schools, to install plastic barriers (if need be), to look at the ventilation system and make it safer.

“Just the ventilation system alone almost seems hopeless. I suppose there's nothing magic about the August 18 date. I mean, if you're in LA Unified, you know very well that that's the day school is supposed to start. 

But that doesn't mean that's the date where you flip a switch and everything is either back to normal or even back to this hybrid schedule. 

You really could see where they might begin online only because they're just not ready, and then roll into a hybrid schedule gradually, school by school or grade level by grade level. 

Because there's really no imperative that they have to do this, flip the switch on August 18. They just have to start school one way or the other on August 18. When they're ready, they're ready.”

—Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson and Angie Perrin

Credits

Guest:
Howard Blume - education reporter for the Los Angeles Times - @howardblume

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Kathryn Barnes