The exact figures may change slightly over the next few weeks, but for the most part, parents and students in the massive Los Angeles Unified School District have had their say. In overwhelming numbers, it appears, they’re not going back to the classroom this school year.
It’s not for a lack of effort on the part of the LAUSD, the nation’s second-largest school district with more than 600,000 students. Quite the opposite: After spending many months describing why it wasn’t safe for students to return to class, district administrators have launched a recent media blitz aimed at convincing parents and students it’s OK to send their children back to campus — an effort that includes detailed explanations of the mitigation and sanitizing measures in place at every school.
But the reluctance is real. It is borne out by LAUSD’s own survey data, which indicates that as of April 1, only about 38% of elementary school children will return to campuses when they reopen in mid-April. Among middle schoolers, the figure drops to 25%, and among high school students it plummets to 16%.
Because those survey figures assume that any nonresponding family is going to remain in distance learning, there’s some wiggle room in the numbers. But that is basically the reality facing the district.
This deep into the school year, with the COVID-19 pandemic still very present, the vast majority of families are choosing to ride it out at home and perhaps hope for a less disruptive choice when classes resume next fall.
After months of making it clear the classroom wasn't safe, the district is now trying to turn a very large ship in a very short amount of time
In L.A.’s hard hit lower income neighborhoods, COVID infection rates remain higher than average, and vaccination outreach in those communities continues to lag. LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said last week that vaccination rates for those age 18 and older in the city are as high as 40% in some neighborhoods, but as low as 10% in others, and “Unfortunately, many of the communities served by schools in Los Angeles Unified are at the lower levels.” It is estimated that about 80% of the district’s students come from low income households.
“We hear directly from families what their concern is. It’s not the relative safety of schools,” Beutner said in a video update posted to the district’s website. “They know in Los Angeles we’ve created the safest possible school environment.” Rather, the superintendent said, many families are worried that their children will catch the virus from others who show up on campus, then bring it home. For some families, that could mean the risk of infecting adults who absolutely cannot afford to stop working if they get sick.
That concern isn’t limited to the poorest neighborhoods. “It’s not that I don’t trust the district,” Teresa Gaines, the parent of two elementary students in Mar Vista, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s that I don’t trust 12-plus other families in a cohort to use safe protocols off campus. I’m not ready to mix my kids with 60 to 70 people outside of my family.”
There are other reasons to wonder about the timing of reopening schools, though. Los Angeles County’s “R” number — that is, the calculated rate of COVID-19 transmission — has been steadily rising for the past several weeks. In a recent media session, County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the number was 0.93 at the beginning of March, up from 0.87 in late February.
An R number over 1.0 suggests that the virus is continuing to spread in a given area rather than receding, so any uptick toward that figure is worrisome to health officials. The county’s predictive modeling shows an R number of 0.95 for early March.
A growing understanding of the variants of the virus also reveals the troubling news that these newer strains may infect children more easily than do the older ones. With those variants now spreading in California, the idea of student-to-student transmission may discourage families from enrolling their kids for in-person learning.
And most of the available COVID statistics don’t yet account for the L.A. area’s public reopening. As the county moved out of California’s most restrictive purple tier of transmission and into the more lenient red tier, Los Angeles restaurants and other businesses began welcoming greater numbers of customers, and beaches and other public spaces are clearly being accessed at volumes not seen in months.
The county’s recent move to the orange tier is accelerating that reopening process. According to the CDC, allowing on premises dining at restaurants has been associated with a rise in COVID-19 case growth rates within 60 days after implementation.
To top it off, the combination of spring break and spiritual holidays has public health officials on high alert, worried that extended travel and large family or neighborhood gatherings will undo much of the progress made in recent weeks. “We know the virus does not respect borders,” Ferrer said. “We must remain diligent and continue to take precautions.”
Statewide, it’s impossible to separate communities’ feelings about school reopening from the COVID realities the families in those neighborhoods have endured. “COVID disproportionately impacted our communities of color, and they are especially cautious about the pace of reopening classrooms,” said E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association. (Disclosure: The union is a financial supporter of this website.)
In a recent poll conducted for the CTA, 62% of white parents said they were “very or fairly confident” that schools were safe for in-person learning. Among Latino parents, that number dropped to 39%; for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders it was 35%, and among Black parents it fell to just 28%. Meanwhile, parents of color were far more likely than whites to say schools were reopening too quickly.
“I feel that things are moving too fast,” said Mariela Velasquez, who volunteers in her children’s elementary classrooms in Fresno. One of the things she has learned from her time in those classes, she said, is that “kids don’t always listen” and are unlikely to keep their distance or spend extended time with a mask on. “We’ve come too far to let our guard down,” she added.
As almost any parent of a student might attest, there are powerful reasons to want to see in-person instruction resume, including critical socialization opportunities, the easing of child care issues and many others. But in the LAUSD, as in most districts around the state, that doesn’t necessarily mean personal instruction.
At the middle and high school levels, students who choose in-person learning will indeed be in a classroom with their teacher and around other students — but they’ll be logged into an online portal at their desks, watching, while the teacher several feet away instructs both those in the room and those still learning from home.
The lack of hands-on teaching is another reason why some families may choose to stay in distance learning mode through the end of this school year. In fact, that’s the assumption that LAUSD makes when conducting its surveys, which explains some slight give in its numbers.
If a family fails to return a survey, the district assumes it means the student(s) in that household will remain online. (According to the most recent data, surveys have been completed by 78% of families with elementary school students, 70% of middle schoolers and 65% of high school students.)
“The issue of whether students attend schools in person rather than remaining online has enormous implications for public education in Los Angeles, and across the country,” Beutner said. “The opportunity gaps for students from families who are struggling to get by will only worsen if they are not back in schools sometime soon.”
It is a very real consideration. But after months of making it plain that the classroom environment was not a safe one for students, the district is now trying to turn around a very large ship in a very short amount of time — and L.A.’s parents and students have only the mildest interest in coming along for that ride.
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