Rising COVID-19 cases nationwide are resulting in school districts including the second-largest in the nation reclosing campuses for all students.
On Monday, Austin Beutner, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), announced the reclosing of campuses for all students and staff, where possible, amid rising COVID-19 cases throughout the community. He said LAUSD and all school districts nationwide need approximately $125 billion from the federal government to fully reopen again.
Last month, he released a plan to start bringing small groups of students back to school, which consisted of special education students returning on Nov. 9 as well as students experiencing homelessness and those in foster care. He also permitted outside athletic team conditioning.
However, rising COVID-19 cases prompted him to cease allowing any students on campus until at least the start of the second semester, which begins on Jan. 11. He also asked district employees who are currently working at school buildings to work from home, if possible, for the remainder of the current semester. He added that the situation will continue to be monitored.
Beutner said that COVID-19 presents the same threat to all 1,037 school districts across California. These range from the smallest, such as Indian Diggings School that serves 13 students east of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, to LAUSD and its enrollment of about 650,000 students. However, he added that schools in Los Angeles cannot consider reopening until the spread of the virus is much lower.
At this report, California has a total of 1.4 million cases, with Los Angeles County responsible for 458,000. Los Angeles County saw a record-breaking daily case number of 10,500 infections reported on Sunday.
Tightened restrictions resulted. On Thanksgiving, Los Angeles County had already suspended all outdoor dining, with the rest of the state joining suit this week. All regions of the state have now also reclosed playgrounds, hair salons, and movie theaters. It is also limiting capacity in malls and stores to 20 percent.
Beutner added that school districts need direct financial and operational assistance from the federal government. He said the support for schools must be clarified in the next relief bill, as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act specifically funds state, local, tribal and territorial governments, though funds can be used to pay school districts operations and reopening costs associated with COVID-19. He also added that schoolteachers and district staff need to be at the top of the list to receive a vaccine.
The National School Transportation Association has also advocated for school bus drivers to be among the first U.S. workers to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
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Beutner explained that LAUSD is ready to reopen schools safely when the community rates are lower. He said the district has updated its building air filters, increased the frequency of cleaning, and moved desks to ensure social distancing in classrooms. Once the virus is reduced to levels appropriate for reopening schools, he added the district will have the capacity to provide weekly testing of all students and staff.
While he said not every school district can build an effort like this, it shouldn’t have to. He advised using LAUSD as a reference tool and to learn from LAUSD’s experience and to create a model that that other school districts can follow.
He outlined a federal school relief program that should consist of cleaning and sanitizing schools, COVID-19 testing for students and staff at schools, mental health support for students, and summer school for all.
He said in order to accomplish these goals, school districts nationwide need $125 billion dollars. “[It’s a] small price to pay to give children a shot at the American dream, and their families a chance to get back to work,” he said.
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He explained that many children are struggling with online learning, in particular young learners, students learning English, students with differences and disabilities and students who were already struggling. He said LAUSD found an increase of 15 percent in D and F grades given to high school students compared to last school year. The district also saw a 10 percent drop in reading proficiency among elementary school students.
Yet he reiterated that LAUSD will not open schools until it is safe and appropriate to do so. “Our goal remains the same, return students to school as soon as possible and in the safest way possible,” he said.