LAUSD superintendent says return to schools will still be risky without vaccine

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Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner on Wednesday said the return to schools will still be risky and more funding would be needed to help accommodate for modifications.

“Science tells us there’s currently no way to be back at school facilities without risk,” the superintendent said in a live video briefing. “The term ‘safely reopen’ is misleading. The risk from the virus will not be zero until there’s a vaccine, or treatment, which is 100% effective.”

He added that guidance from health authorities on practicing good hygiene and avoiding contact won’t be enough.

“Health authorities and school officials will, together, need to define clear procedures on this to avoid confusion and unnecessary risk,” Beutner said.

Though there still hasn’t been an official date for resuming in-person classes for the state’s largest school district, the next school year starts Aug. 18.

Education officials have said schools will look very different when students return amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and might feature a hybrid of in-person and online learning.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education offered recommendations that districts can use as a reference when they get the green light to reopen. They include reduced class sizes to ensure physical distancing, required face masks, handwashing schedules and students attending school in shifts. 

But Beutner said reopening schools is more complicated.

“It’s not as simple as wearing masks, moving the desks, or putting some painters tape on the floor to keep students farther apart,” he said.

With the new school year just ten weeks away, the superintendent said officials will have to balance between prioritizing health and safety, the impact the pandemic has had on jobs and the educational needs of students.

He said in any return-to-school scenario, the objective would be to reduce interaction between people.

“Unless the state of California is going to dramatically increase funding for schools to hire more adults, the consequence of fewer students per group is that all students cannot be at school at the same time,” he said.

Facilities will need to be reconfigured, cleaning supplies to sanitize schools and personal protective equipment for staff and students will need to be purchased, and more teachers and staff will be needed to do the extra work both in schools and online, according to Beutner.

He reminded parents that the virus is more widespread now than in March, when schools were first shuttered. There were only 50 cases in the county then, and now there are more than 57,000 cases, and the virus is known to be more contagious than previously thought, he said.

And with hundreds of thousands of staff and students within the school district, going home to millions more within the county, there needs to be plans for coronavirus testing and contact tracing at schools, Beutner said.

“Health authorities will need to make public their testing plan well before August 18,” Beutner said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in April had announced state officials were considering starting the next school year as early as July or early August.

The state has allowed dozens of counties, including L.A. County, to reopen spaces faster during Stage 2 of the economic recovery plan. Counties granted permission can choose to allow schools to reopen— but with modifications.

The California Department of Public Health has yet to release guidance for reopening schools.

The University of Southern California announced Tuesday it will resume in-person classes for the fall semester on Aug. 17, with face coverings required and almost every undergraduate in-person class also offered online.

Most schools in the state have been shuttered since March, with learning continuing remotely. But the transition online has highlighted disparities in access to technology and internet connections. And many residents have reported struggling to keep their children on pace academically, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

“Teachers and staff at all of our schools have made heroic efforts to reconnect students with their school community, and provide online instruction as best they can,” the superintendent said. “But we all know, there’s no substitute for learning in a school setting, and many students are struggling and falling far behind where they should be.”

By Aug. 18, it would have been about five months since students were last in school. 

“There’s been no time in modern history for students have been absent from school for such a long period of time,” he said.

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