LAUSD may revisit social distancing policy, instructional schedules in future

The Los Angeles Unified School District may change its policy on how spread apart students must remain in the classroom for the summer and fall — when on-campus activities are also likely to increase — Superintendent Austin Beutner said Tuesday, March 23, offering hope to parents who want the district to provide in-person instruction five days a week to students in all grade levels.

The district is currently locked into maintaining 6 feet of distancing between desks because of an agreement it negotiated with the teachers union on how to safely reopen schools, though recent changes to state and federal guidelines suggest 3 feet of spacing is OK.

But that agreement, effective through June 30, is valid only for this school year, which means the terms could be renegotiated in the months ahead.

By reducing the amount of physical distancing required, schools could fit more desks in a classroom and potentially eliminate the need to split up a class of students into two cohorts, thus allowing all students to return to campus five days a week, parents who have been advocating for schools to reopen say.

“For now, our plans have been built around 6-foot (distancing),” Beutner said during Tuesday’s school board meeting. “We think that’s the appropriate standard. We talked to our scientists and advisers.”

That said, the superintendent said the board may see changes coming in the summer and fall and that it would be reasonable to expect more in-person activities offered as health standards relax.

“As more of the community is vaccinated, we would expect health restrictions and health precautions to ease somewhat,” he said. “That will mean we’ll look at issues like the 3-foot, 6-foot for desks and things like that. We’ll also have the ability to build from scratch instructional schedules, if that’s appropriate, to accommodate as much in-person instruction as possible.”

The district has taken a beating for its hybrid learning model for middle and high schools this semester. Not only will students be on campus for only half the week, but they will continue learning online rather than receive in-person instruction from their teachers, as they would be required to remain in one classroom the entire time.

Beutner has noted that other districts have also struggled to come up with a better hybrid plan while keeping students in stable cohorts to minimize the risk of viral transmission.

Middle and high schools are slated to reopen the week of April 26. About 60 elementary schools and early education centers will reopen the week of April 12, with the remaining elementary and early education sites welcoming students back the following week.

Families should learn by the end of this week the exact date that their children’s schools will reopen, district officials said.

In anticipation of coming back onto campus, all students and staff will be required to be tested for the coronavirus the week before their return. Once students are back in the classroom, weekly COVID-19 testing will occur at their desks.

Some families are still deciding whether to send their children back to campus this semester.

About 64% of families have informed the district of their plans so far, and officials are encouraging those who haven’t submitted a survey to do so in order for administrators to properly plan for the reopenings.

Based on the responses thus far, 41% of families districtwide plan to enroll their children in the hybrid program while 59% will have their kids remain in distance learning full time, said David Baca, chief of schools for the district. At the moment, 50% of elementary school families plan to have their child return, as do 36% of middle school families and 26% of high school families.

Families in low-income neighborhoods that have been ravaged by the pandemic are also more reluctant to send their children back, officials acknowledge.

To help families feel more comfortable about having their children return to school, the district is partnering with St. John’s Well Child and Family Center to vaccinate family members of LAUSD students starting April 5. The vaccinations will be administered at Abraham Lincoln Senior High School in East L.A. and George Washington Preparatory Senior High School in South L.A.

Because the effort is intended to prioritize family members from hard-hit communities, St. John’s will be verifying an individual’s ZIP code to determine eligibility, said Jim Mangia, president and CEO of St. John’s.

“This partnership is about vaccine equity – making sure that those most impacted by COVID in communities of color and low income neighborhoods have access to the COVID vaccine,” he wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, LAUSD officials have been on a campaign to highlight the health and safety measures they’ve undertaken at schools and to promote the hybrid program for elementary students as a full-day program.

Elementary students in the hybrid model will receive three hours of in-person instruction with their teachers — most likely in the morning — five days a week. Afterwards, they’ll be able to go home or, if they choose, can stay for the district’s Beyond the Bell program, where they’ll have an opportunity to participate in enrichment activities or receive help with homework.

“If you look at a traditional elementary school day a year ago, you would’ve seen the academic instruction spread out over the course of a day,” Beutner said. “All we’ve done is concentrate it in the morning or the afternoon, and the rest of the activities will be very much like what an old elementary school day would look like — a chance to play with friends, supervised by adults, whether you’re doing your homework or in one-one-one tutoring, an activity.”

Although elementary students will have recess, they won’t be allowed to use the play structures on the playground — a decision which school board member Nick Melvoin said he’d like district staff to reconsider.

Board members were also told that students from different cohorts may be combined for afterschool child care.

District administrators have held a number of meetings and town halls in recent days to answer additional questions from the public and are preparing a document of “frequently asked questions” which they hope to share with families soon.

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