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Superintendent update on reopening schools

Good morning. I’m Austin Beutner, Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified.
Today, I’ll share a quick update on our continuing efforts to provide a safety net to the communities we serve, we’ll talk about what needs to be done to reopen school classrooms and continue our tour on the Magic School Bus to highlight some of the remarkable work happening in schools across Los Angeles Unified.
Since March, we’ve provided about 102 million meals along with 24 million items of much-needed supplies to the communities we serve making this the largest school-based relief effort in the country. This past week, our partners at the Ford Motor Company provided an additional 2 million masks for students, staff and families. They’ve now provided 4 million masks in total. Our friends at See’s Candies created lots more smiles by donating another 350,000 pounds of candy. In case you’re wondering, the candy they shared weighs about the same as 29 African elephants.
To join in our efforts, please text NEED to 76278 or visit lastudentsmostinneed.org
The conversation about reopening schools has again become front page news, as it should have been every day for the past 11 months. And for any local officials who want to help, I welcome your support. For 332 days, my day has started and ended with the same question: What can we do to get students back in the classroom as soon as possible and in the safest way possible?
This renewed political interest feels like an echo from last July. Federal officials at that time suggested students need to be in school and, like a Nike ad, told educators, “Just Do It.” We all know the best place for students to learn is in a school setting. While Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz might have said, tap your heels together three times and say, ‘There’s no place like home,’ and you’ll be there, actually returning to schools is not so simple.
We can’t repeat the past 11 months – the next 11 months have to be better for the students and families we serve. That includes making sure schools are open as soon as possible and in the safest way possible. But that will only happen if we truly make schools a priority.
As difficult as the decision was to close schools in March, reopening is harder. We have to balance the learning needs of students, the support we provide working families and our responsibility to protect the health and safety of all in the school community. And we just cannot compromise on health and safety.
We’re painfully aware of the hardship closed schools inflict for students, families and the economy in the communities we serve.
We know the best place for most students to learn is in person, in the classroom, and that many of the communities we serve are those most impacted by the virus where families have had a difficult time navigating distance learning – for many of the same reasons. Those working in jobs outside of the home, living in close proximity with multiple family members or experiencing homelessness or food insecurity face enormous challenges in an online learning environment. Across the country, we have seen that anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation are increasing among children and adults. Schools need to be open.
But schools in Los Angeles Unified remain closed because the state law says they must be closed. Let me be clear about this. School classrooms are closed because it is against the law for schools in Los Angeles Unified to reopen due to the continued dangerously high level of the virus in the communities we serve. The current state standard for the level of COVID-19 is not being met in Los Angeles County and, while the standards have changed over time, virus case levels have not met the standard to reopen schools for even one day in Los Angeles since the state created the standards in August.
Here is how that works. The latest California public health standards state that kindergarten and grades one through six can reopen when the adjusted rate of new daily COVID cases is below 25 per 100 thousand population. Secondary schools can reopen only when the adjusted case rate falls below seven cases per 100,000. There is no new waiver process or exceptions for schools to reopen in these latest state rules.
San Francisco authorities worked together and brought the rate of infection under control and the area for some time has met the state standard for school reopening, but that’s just not the case in Los Angeles.
Until the community spread of the virus remains below the thresholds the state has set for the reopening of schools, our campuses must remain closed. That’s the law.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle story illustrates a seemingly contradictory response to getting COVID levels down to the point where schools can reopen. When California Governor Newsom relaxed restrictions for communities across the state in late January, both Los Angeles and San Francisco quickly followed suit. Los Angeles County’s case rate then was about 97 per 100,000 residents compared with 27 in San Francisco. But when the stay-at-home order was put in place back in early December, LA’s case rate was about 39. LA reopened at 97 after closing at 39. How does that make sense? LA’s rate of those testing positive when reopening, about 10%, was nearly identical to that which caused closure in December and currently triple that in San Francisco, the hospitalization rate is nearly triple and the death rate is more than four times that in San Francisco.
I’m not a health expert and want to remind all in the school community that we must listen to the experts on this. But we are owed an explanation on what changed between the authorities’ views in December and their actions more recently. If teens can now go to the mall together, surely they can be at school and on practice fields in a carefully supervised setting with strict health protocols in place. Or if the risk of the spread of the virus is too great, then let’s close the malls to keep everyone safe and reduce the level of the virus so that schools can open.
Job One for all local officials who want to help get students back to school is to reduce the spread of the virus in the communities served by our schools. We need to get it down to the levels needed to meet the state standards.
The next piece to reopening is to make sure the right set of health practices and protocols are in place at schools. At the risk of repeating myself, schools in Los Angeles Unified have done everything the current Federal CDC guidelines say need to be done to create the safest possible school environment. And we have gone beyond those by putting in place the most comprehensive school-based testing program for COVID-19 in the nation.
While school campuses have been closed, we have been hard at work getting them ready for students to return. Los Angeles Unified has done more than any school district in the nation to prepare schools to welcome students back to in-person classes.
  • We retrofitted 80 million square feet of school buildings to ensure the air is filtered to remove any virus, using Merv-13 filters, which are akin to N-95 masks.
  • We clean and sanitize every room in every school, and are prepared to do so every day when students and staff return,
  • We reconfigured the layout of each of our schools to spread out the desks and workstations to ensure six feet of separation.
  • We installed health-screening stations at each school entrance to make sure no one enters who has a fever or exhibits other COVID-19 symptoms.
  • We added plexiglass partitions in offices and other work spaces.
  • We designated hallways, walkways and stairways for one-way traffic only to keep students and staff six feet apart.
  • We implemented rules requiring rigorous disinfection between users of any shared equipment like printers, telephones and keyboards.
  • We placed hand sanitizer stations throughout schools.
  • We created the most comprehensive school-based testing and contact tracing program in the nation.
  • We trained staff on health protocols and practices.
Research tells us that one of the most important ways to reduce the spread of the virus is to wear a mask. To help with that, students will benefit from the generosity of a local clothing and fitness wear manufacturer, FAM Brands. FAM Brands is donating 3.6 million reusable cloth masks, so that every student will receive a package of six masks just like these the day they return to school.
We’ll make sure all people at schools wear masks and comply with other safety measures because the evidence from the experience of other school districts and in studies by the CDC, UCLA, Stanford, Harvard and others show that health and safety practices at schools are a critical piece of the puzzle.
UCLA has more than 30 full-service medical clinics in neighborhoods across Los Angeles offering world-class care using the latest medical technology. Because of the safety measures they put in place, exposure of healthcare workers to the virus did not take place at work.
Schools in Baltimore have had no in-school transmissions of the virus since reopening late last year. The state of Illinois, where 39 percent of students have returned to class, has not had a single reported case of in-school transmission.
We take the responsibility to keep students and employees safe very seriously and have been working with a world-class team since June helping us understand these issues. We’ve brought together three research universities, three healthcare providers, two labs, and a leading technology giant to provide us with the best possible advice, tools and technology to reopen schools in the safest way possible.
We have put in place every safety measure the CDC recommends and we’ve gone a step beyond with our COVID testing program at schools. Since September, we’ve been providing free COVID tests for students, staff and families at schools. Please watch and learn more about how the program works and why this will add another level of protection at schools.
If reopening schools is the priority, why not provide another vital level of protection by vaccinating school teachers and staff? This is a third and critical piece to this reopening puzzle.
This will not only protect the health and safety of our essential employees but will provide enormous benefit to the children and their families as it will lead to a sooner reopening of schools and the economy more broadly by enabling the working families we serve to go back to work. Most people know about the importance of the vaccine and the current scarcity of doses. But we don't gain much by having an existential debate comparing a 66-year-old retiree living in a single-family home who can minimize outside contact with a 59-year-old reading teacher working in a classroom with young children from families hard hit by the virus, or a 64-year-old bus driver taking special education students to school. All need to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
Vaccinating school staff will have an enormous impact on society. Let me share a simple math exercise to make the point.
There are about a quarter-million students in preschool and elementary schools throughout Los Angeles Unified. To vaccinate all who work in these schools, who are not otherwise already eligible, we would need to vaccinate about 25,000 people. You heard that right – vaccinating 25,000 people will allow us to reopen elementary school classrooms for 250,000 children and help their half million plus family members start on the path to recovery and allow many of them to go back to work.
Vaccinating school staff will help get school classrooms reopened sooner. And while soon is good, organized is even better. It won’t be sufficient to vaccinate some school staff now and others far down the road. A bus driver takes students to school, school principal unlocks the front door, teacher leads in the classroom, cafeteria worker prepares lunch and a custodian keeps the school clean – they’re all connected at school.
Vaccinate 25,000 people and reopen elementary schools in the nation’s second largest school district. Sounds simple to me.
So there you have it, reopening elementary schools for about a quarter-million kids in three easy pieces:
  • Get the community spread of the virus down to the level the state requires.
  • Put the right set of health practices and protocols in place at schools.
  • And vaccinate 25,000 people.
Los Angeles Unified has led the nation in responding to this crisis:
  • Providing 102 million meals and 24 million items of much-needed supplies to families in need
  • Making sure half-million students have a computer and internet access to remain connected with their school community and continue learning
  • Providing almost 500,000 free COVID tests at schools to students, staff and their families
This is our chance to show how schools can be reopened in the safest way possible. We can do this, but only if we all work together. We’ve got lots of work to do and the kids are counting on us.
Simple does not necessarily mean easy, I get that. But we start with one part already completed – we have the highest possible standards already in place at schools. If all who care so much about schools can work together and create a whole of government response to this challenge, we can get this done. We can get the other two parts done.
Threats of lawsuits, finger pointing and speech making won’t help. I call on every state and local official as well as every stakeholder in the school community to join us in the challenge. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. Call it the 60-day challenge to offer every young student the learning opportunity they deserve.
While we commit ourselves to this challenge over the next 60 days, we also need to expand the safety net for the communities we serve to include access to vaccination. Schools in Los Angeles Unified are uniquely positioned to help.
Last week the Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Hilda Solis, and I sent a letter to President Biden asking for the federal government to send additional vaccine doses to Los Angeles to help our schools provide vaccinations to people in communities most impacted by the virus.
We’re pleased to be working together with the County to use school sites to provide vaccinations. Schools are trusted institutions located in every neighborhood something especially helpful in low-income communities and communities of color, which often lack access to healthcare services.
For example, in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood where median household incomes are less than $33,000, there are just two drug stores, four fire stations and no stadiums to serve as potential vaccination sites.
But do you know what Boyle Heights does have – 24 public schools. Vaccines provided at schools would offer a convenient option to families who are unable to participate in the nightly online lottery for vaccination appointments, lack access to transportation or cannot afford to miss a day of work to travel across town for a vaccination.
The same is true for other low-income communities in Los Angeles and across the nation.
Los Angeles Unified has the staff, both clinical and logistical and Microsoft, Anthem Blue Cross, Health Net and Cedars-Sinai are helping with this school-based vaccination program.
Last week I participated in a dry run of sorts to see first-hand how it will work. At the Roybal Learning Center, I first went through a series of health screening questions and had my temperature taken. Next I shared confirmation of my appointment and a picture ID. I then received a mock injection of vaccine.
The process was flawless, which is understandable because our team has had plenty of practice. We have been providing COVID tests to students, staff and their families at Roybal for months and have provided almost a half-million tests at schools throughout Los Angeles Unified.
The virus is having a disproportionate impact on low-income communities which must be provided with access to the vaccines. This partnership between the nation’s largest county and second-largest school district can serve as a model which can be replicated elsewhere in the nation to help achieve the Biden administration’s goal of vaccinating at least 75 to 80 percent of Americans by the fall.
As we start to look ahead and plan for the next school year, we’ve taken additional steps to provide schools with as much funding as possible to help students on their path to recovery. The more we can simplify the school budget process, the more time school administrators will have to focus on the students and families they serve.
We’ll start by making it easier for schools to spend monies in their budget they did not spend this last school year. Last year, schools were provided with about 50 percent of their unspent money in February, the rest in September. This year, we are increasing the first portion to 80 percent. This will help maximize the flexibility for each school community by providing certainty about the money they have and enabling decisions now rather than after the school year has started.
We also hope to provide additional funds to schools in March once state and federal budget actions are made final.
We are increasing the amount of time schools have to prepare their budgets by almost 50%. This will allow more time for school communities to work together, identify priorities and allocate funds accordingly.
We are adding technology staff to schools in each community to improve community outreach to better serve families.
We’re also providing $70 million in additional funds to schools based on the Student Equity Needs Index. For those of you unfamiliar with the index, it helps determine which schools have the greatest needs based on a number of factors. The goal is to provide additional funding to serve students at the schools with the highest need students.
This crisis is having significant impact on enrollment in Options Schools, which provide high school students with alternative to a traditional school setting. We will provide funds to Option Schools to allow them to maintain staffing levels and avoid any changes based on lower enrollment. This will lessen disruption and allow for more consistent efforts on behalf of students.
Our ride on the Magic School Bus this week took me to South Gate to visit with some of the dedicated staff at one of our Options Schools – Simon Rodia High School.
Rodia is a remarkable school. I admire the way students and staff have built a culture founded on trust, collaboration and helping each student find their voice, often in art. During a past visit, I had the chance to help complete a beautiful mosaic bench made from broken pieces of tile. One of their students drew an analogy between himself and the art he created, saying he sees himself and his classmates as broken pieces of tile, coming to the school for help. And he thinks of the adults at the school led by Principal Gutierrez as artists who help students become whole and find something beautiful inside themselves.
At the school, I also had the opportunity to speak with Adrienne Phillips, a bus driver who is a wonderful example of the effort everyone in Los Angeles Unified is making to help students.
When the pandemic hit, we asked staff members who could no longer do their current jobs to contribute in other ways. School principals set up a program to provide meals at schools, school nurses provide COVID tests and are training to provide vaccinations and bus drivers are pitching in at schools. It’s all hands on deck. Ms. Phillips went to work in the office at Rodia, where she saw first-hand the struggles of students, teachers and their families as they transitioned to online learning.
That’s where teacher Jesus Martinez came in. He had worked with students to create beautiful butterfly mosaics the previous year and some had been left undone when schools closed suddenly in March. Mr. Martinez asked Ms. Phillips if she could help complete the mosaics for students and she did. She got the hang of it and made some dolphins. And then she created her masterpiece: It’s a school bus and it is definitely magical.
As we close this week, I want to share with you a short video about Simon Rodia and my visit. Please enjoy.
Thank you for your continued patience and support.