The Los Angeles school district will not reopen campuses when the spring semester starts Jan. 11, and in a Monday statement Supt. Austin Beutner provided no timetable for bringing students back to campuses, citing the dangerous coronavirus surge and “alarming” data from the district’s own testing program.
Beutner also announced that the nation’s second-largest school system would continue to provide households with free meals over the holidays. In addition, people with a district connection can make an appointment for free virus testing at one of 41 sites across the sprawling school system, which encompasses all or parts of 26 cities.
But the news that all families were awaiting was the status of in-person instruction.
“It will not be possible for us to reopen school campuses by the time next semester starts on Jan. 11,” Beutner said in a pre-recorded briefing. “We’ll remain in online-only mode until community health conditions improve significantly.”
His remarks also contained a foreboding data point: 10% of students coming in to school-based coronavirus testing sites were positive for the virus.
“The most recent data from our testing program is alarming,” Beutner said. “Over the past week, 5% of adults — who did not report any exposure or symptoms — tested positive, and close to 10% of children.”
He added: “Think about that — 1 in 10 children being tested at schools show no symptoms but have the virus. It’s clear we’re a long way from reopening schools with the level of virus this high.”
L.A. Unified’s action is in line with those of other large urban school systems in the region. Students in Long Beach Unified, the fourth-largest system in California, will not return to campus until at least March 1. San Francisco won’t reopen campuses before February.
The status of campus reopening varies across Southern California.
Under state guidelines, public and private schools can fully reopen two weeks after a county exits the worst pandemic rating, which is called the “purple tier.” Until recently, areas with lower infection rates had included Ventura, Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties. And many schools in those counties reopened over the fall. Now, however, the entire region has descended into the purple tier and hospitals are scrambling to find beds and staff to care for COVID patients.
Campuses that already had opened can remain open. But schools cannot reopen for the first time under current restrictions. And many are returning to distance-only learning — briefly or for extended periods — including Vista Unified, Escondido Union School District, Oceanside Unified and Poway Unified, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
The problem isn’t necessarily that the virus has been spreading widely on campus, but safety protocols to prevent outbreaks result in campus closures when students or staff test positive. In L.A. County, for instance, three cases on one campus could prompt a closure.
Santa Ana Unified had yet to reopen, but it was offering learning pods — which provide a setting for distance learning to students with unreliable internet access at home. The learning pods, too, went into hiatus during the December surge.
“We will still have meal distributions and in-person tech support with safety protocols in place after winter break,” said Santa Ana district spokesman Fermin Leal. “Staff can still work from their work sites when working remotely is not possible. But group gatherings of staff is discouraged.”
San Dieguito Union High School District in San Diego County is moving in the other direction. Its board voted narrowly last week to reopen schools starting in January, despite warnings from district administrators, the teachers union and others that there won’t be enough staff and that the reopening may violate state rules. The district plans to offer all students one-day-a-week, in-person instruction starting Jan. 4, and five-days-a-week in-person instruction starting Jan. 27.
Los Angeles County has yet to leave the purple tier, so no schools are allowed to fully open to all students. But there are exceptions: Local schools can operate under a waiver for transitional kindergarten through second grade. In addition, they can bring to campus up to 25% of enrollment at a given time to serve students with special needs.
L.A. Unified has not applied for waivers and has so far made limited use of allowances for students with special needs — reaching about 2,500 students, less than 1% of enrollment. The pandemic surge compelled Beutner to shut down all in-person services for the final two weeks of the winter term, which ended Friday.
It was not immediately clear if the delay in campus reopening also would apply to these limited in-person services. Two advocacy groups have sued to pressure L.A. Unified to bring back greater numbers of students for this assistance. Other advocacy groups are pressing the district to provide more live teaching online — resulting in a separate lawsuit.
The district continues to distribute massive numbers of meals. Over the winter break, the distribution will take place Monday through Wednesday, with extra meals provided on Wednesdays to help tide families over.
Late last week, the district and the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, reached a revised distance-learning agreement. It adds to the schedule additional live teaching and extended office hours — although the changes are unlikely to placate critics.
The announcement of a delayed reopening was not really a surprise, but it did provide clarity for parents. Union leaders have gone further, saying there will be no full campus reopenings in January, which they see as an issue that would require negotiations.
Last week, the teachers union urged a more widespread economic shutdown in January to slow the virus. They made this call in conjunction with unions representing nurses, other health workers, grocery store employees and hotel and restaurant workers. The teachers also called for prioritizing the opening of schools at the end of any lockdown and providing early vaccine access to school staff.
Speak Up, a local advocacy group that is often at odds with the teachers union, offered support on Monday for much of the union’s proposal.
“We agree with UTLA that we need to take much stronger measures — and enforce them — in January to bring this virus under control so we can safely reopen campuses as soon as we turn the corner on this surge,” Chief Executive Katie Braude said. “We hope that teachers will begin receiving the vaccine in February.”
The group faulted the union and district, however, for not working together to ensure that more students received in-person services when infection rates were lower.