Some of Los Angeles Unified’s youngest students on Tuesday entered campuses for the first time in more than a year, as California’s largest school district slowly reopens for in-person instruction.
Parents had phones in hand, ready to show school staff at the door that their children had tested negative for Covid-19 and that they had completed the required health questionnaire.
Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the nation, has faced criticism for not reopening sooner, as other large and neighboring school districts reopened over the past several months for in-person instruction. In September, a group of parents filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the district of failing students with inadequate instruction during the pandemic. When the district’s reopening plan was announced, some criticized the plan to reopen middle and high schools without implementing in-person instruction time. Instead, the older students enrolled in the district will sit in their classrooms while tuning into their lessons via their regular video platform.
Last week, Los Angeles Unified was again sued by a group of parents calling for a return to full-time in-person instruction to the fullest extent possible.
On Tuesday, as students walked in one-by-one at Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School in Maywood, some parents lingered outside the gates to watch until their children were safely guided to their designated classrooms.
It was Zoe Reyes’ first time on a school campus as a transitional kindergartner, a school grade designed for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. Her only previous in-person experience was at a preschool on a different campus.
“The problem is that she’s not used to being around a lot of people,” her mother, Maria Grejada, said in Spanish, as they waited in line to be checked into school. “She says that she knows her friends online via video, but she doesn’t know them in person.”
Grejada shared that Zoe, who was feeling shy and nervous on her first day of in-person school, has been crying all week. When a school staff member asked if she was feeling excited about being at school, Zoe, 5, shyly turned away toward her mother.
Grejada worried that she might not be able to drop off Zoe because she struggled to open and complete the survey conducted by the district and to use the Daily Pass application, which is required to drop off students each day. The web app requires parents to answer daily health questions, generates a unique QR code, and serves as an entrance pass to school for each student.
Once Grejada and Zoe reached the front of the line, however, school staff helped Grejada navigate the app, and Zoe nervously walked into her classroom.
“This journey to this point, none of us could have anticipated. None of us could have known when we closed school facilities to keep all the school communities safe that it would take more than a year to be able to bring students and staff back to school safely,” said district Superintendent Austin Beutner during a press conference Tuesday morning at Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School. “But it’s on that foundation that the path to recovery will begin here today and at schools throughout Los Angeles Unified.”
Heliotrope is predominantly an immigrant and working class city in southeast Los Angeles County. The district’s school-based Covid-19 testing sites, which for months have offered free tests to school staff, students and their families, have shown that southeast Los Angeles has endured some of the highest positive Covid-19 rates in the district.
On Tuesday, about 80 Heliotrope Avenue students in transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st grade walked through the gates and into their school, some of them students on a school campus for the first time in their lives. The 2nd- and 3rd-graders will begin in-person classes on Wednesday, and 4th- and 5th-graders will begin on Thursday.
The school is one of the 71 elementary schools and early education centers that are reopening this week. The district will reopen 508 schools next Monday and 262 the following week.
According to a survey conducted by Los Angeles Unified, about 40% of students will be returning to their classrooms for some form of in-person instruction. Early results showed that many families living in neighborhoods with high Covid-19 death rates have signaled that their children will not return to in-person learning under a hybrid format. The same neighborhoods have low vaccination rates, at times the lowest in the county. In contrast, the survey shows that families in neighborhoods with lower death rates and higher vaccination rates are more likely to send their children into classrooms once their schools reopen.
In response, the district recently opened 25 school-based vaccination sites to increase access to vaccines in the communities where students live.
Less than half of students are expected to return in person, but the district has received constant criticism of their handling of school reopenings.
The Los Angeles group of parents that sued the district last week, California Students United, is asking that the school district remove the requirements that students remain 6 feet apart from each other while in their classrooms and that students be tested for Covid-19 as a condition for returning to school campuses.
“The LAUSD Board and Superintendent Beutner has no valid legal or health and safety basis to justify their reopening plan,” stated a California Students United press release. “They continue to violate the constitutional rights of 600,000 LAUSD students to receive a public education.”
The Los Angeles suit was filed by the same law firm representing groups of parents who sued six San Diego County school districts in February, making similar arguments. In San Diego, three of the five districts in the lawsuit — Carlsbad Unified, San Dieguito Union High and Poway Unified — announced reopening plans with nearly full-time in-person schedules.
For now, Los Angeles Unified elementary school students will be receiving in-person instruction five days a week for about three hours at a time. Students will be divided into two cohorts, with one attending class in person from 8 to 11 a.m. and the second attending in person from 12 to 3 p.m. The hour in between each cohort will be used to clean and disinfect the classrooms.
Middle and high school students will be attending school two to three days a week and staying in a single classroom every week with the same group of students. Students will participate in “community building” activities that promote social-emotional learning, according to the district’s family guide to reopening. Academic instruction, however, will continue online.
In Los Angeles, as with many cities across the country, Latino communities and other underrepresented groups have been particularly hard hit by high rates of Covid-19 rates and deaths. The students that Los Angeles Unified serves are nearly 75% Latino; in addition, nearly 80% of the students live in poverty, according to the district.
Multiple Covid-19 surges over the past year have made families in these communities somewhat hesitant to send children back to campus. The neighborhood where Heliotrope Avenue is located has maintained a high rate of transmission, according to the district’s own Covid-19 testing data.
Pam Enriquez, an instructional coach for English learners attending Heliotrope Avenue, grew up in Maywood. Her father still lives in the area and had a neighbor pass away due to Covid-19. That neighbor would regularly walk his granddaughter to school at Heliotrope Avenue prior to the pandemic.
“Today, when I saw him not bringing his kindergartner, his granddaughter, it got to me,” Enriquez said. “He was so involved with all his own kids and his grandkids. It is hard, because you start seeing all those missing pieces.”
Los Angeles Unified temporarily reopened for small group instruction and one-on-one tutoring during the fall, but the effort was soon shut down amid a Covid-19 surge that lasted through the beginning of the new year. Even then, the in-person options were available only for certain students, such as English learners and students with disabilities.
With Tuesday’s reopening, Los Angeles Unified is joining a growing list of school districts reopening this month across the state. This week alone, Chula Vista Elementary Unified in San Diego County, Sacramento City Unified and San Francisco Unified are reopening.
As the reopening dates neared, L.A. educators and other staff began calling for assistance with child care. Last week, the district announced they will begin to offer a $500 monthly subsidy to the parents with children ages 5 and younger who are full-time employees with the district. Employees who qualify will receive the subsidy through the rest of the current semester and if they work during the summer.
It’s the latest move — along with continuing to offer free Covid-19 testing and running community vaccination sites — to facilitate the process of bringing nearly 700,000 students back to their classrooms.
After dropping off her daughter Coraline, a mother who only wanted to be identified by her first name, Cassandra, watched her from the school’s gate while holding a Polaroid photo she had just taken of Coraline.
Cassandra decided to send Coraline back into school because her daughter is responsible about keeping her mask on, and she was excited about going to a school campus.
“She was ready,” Cassandra said. “She was scared of getting sick, but she wants to be back.”
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