Classes outside, face coverings and one-way hallways: How Los Angeles schools may reopen

Los Angeles County Office of Education Supt. Debra Duardo, left, is given a tour Cerritos Elementary School in Glendale by Principal Perla Chavez-Fritz, right, on Tuesday, May 26 considering that with a persisting coronavirus threat, K-12 campuses will try to reopen in the fall. New L.A. County guidelines offer a possible roadmap but it could get complicated and costly to confront the logistics of reopening at an actual school in the wake of Covid-19.

Many schools in districts in Los Angeles County could have a totally different look this year: masked students sitting six feet apart, walking single file along hallways and up and down stairs. They may eat lunch at their desks or with drastically fewer students in the cafeteria, and some could attend classes outdoors.

Those are among the recommendations of a county-wide task force of district leaders for reopening schools for more than 2 million students this fall. The recommendations are included in a framework published Wednesday by the L.A. County Office of Education and are meant to serve as a guide to 80 school districts within the county, by far the most populous in the state, as they consider how and whether to reopen for the 2020-21 academic year. 

“It’s going to be hard to ensure the safe physical reopening of campuses. But one thing we know we need to do is we need to be prepared. And we have to have plans in place so that we are ready when the time comes for us to reopen,” L.A. County Supt. of Schools Debra Duardo said in a conference call Wednesday.

It’s unclear whether the L.A. County guidelines will be followed uniformly across the county. A group of 11 superintendents warned in a letter last week to Duardo and other officials that it would be “impractical” to keep students six feet apart and “unrealistic” to expect students, especially those with disabilities or very young children, to wear face coverings for an entire school day.

“While many of these proposed guidelines may be feasible in a hospital setting or a commercial business setting, we do not believe they are feasible or practical in a school setting. These unattainable and unrealistic measures will drastically inhibit school districts’ ability to reopen,” the superintendents wrote. 

The guidance, which if implemented would represent a massive overhaul of the typical school day, offers the most detailed guidance yet to California school districts on how they may reopen schools. It was drawn up by a task force of 25 superintendents and other representatives from districts across the county.

It also comes ahead of statewide guidelines for resuming in-person classes, which are expected to be released in June. Schools have been closed across the state for in-person instruction since mid-March in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Among the districts in L.A. county are Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state with about 600,000 students, and Long Beach Unified, the state’s fourth largest district. 

Administrators at L.A. Unified have said it will be impossible to reopen schools safely this fall if budgets are reduced as proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, since implementing the necessary changes will bring significant costs. Newsom proposed a reduction to school budgets of about 8% from last year. 

During a conference call Wednesday morning, county officials and members of the task force acknowledged that following the guidelines and reopening schools will be difficult.

“We do have a deep interest in having students return to school. We do recognize it will be significantly challenging and we anxiously await real clear directions from the Department of Public Health as well as the funding to be able to do so,” said Julie Mitchell, a member of the task force and superintendent of Rowland Unified, which is east of Los Angeles.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, during a press briefing Wednesday on the state’s progress in developing guidelines to reopen schools, said California students and school staff should expect to wear face coverings, maintain physical distancing and have their temperature taken daily when schools reopen in the fall.

“We expect there will be a balance of instruction between distance learning and in-class instruction and we actually think that balance will be helpful to many in our state,” Thurmond said. “The more distance learning we are doing, that means we can have fewer students on campus and that means we can have smaller class sizes, which is going to be important.”

Thurmond said schools would have to use every part of the campus to ensure students are six feet apart when sitting in desks, eating lunch or riding school buses. The L.A. document said additional buses may be needed to keep students six feet apart on the bus, while there may also need to be changes to how parents and students wait for buses. Students may also need to be screened or get a “health check” before boarding the bus.

Districts wouldn’t be bound by the state’s guidance and can make independent decisions on reopening schools in concert with their local public health department. Similarly, L.A. County officials emphasized Wednesday that the guidelines for reopening schools are just that: guidelines, not directives. School districts will be able to maintain local control as they determine how to reopen, as long as they follow public health orders. 

“We expect plans will look different in different areas of the county,” Duardo said. 

Districts will be able to decide for themselves whether they want to resume face-to-face classes at all. They can instead decide to continue with distance learning or use a mix of face-to-face and virtual instruction.

The guidance for reopening schools was released as the coronavirus continues to spread in California and especially in L.A. County. The county accounts for more than half of the state’s deaths due to the virus to date as the number of infections continues to grow. Over the past two weeks, 51% of all coronavirus cases in the state have been in the county, according to the Los Angeles Times, even though the county accounts for only a quarter of California’s population. 

What’s unclear is how schools should respond if they learn that a student or staff member has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The guidance issued by the county calls for schools to create their own response plans. If a student or staff member shows symptoms consistent with the virus, they would have to be sent home to isolate for at least 10 days after the symptoms first appear and at least three days after recovering, according to the guidance.

L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner has said schools will need a “robust system of testing and contact tracing” in place before they can consider reopening. But the framework released Wednesday concludes that “at this time, it is not feasible” for testing to be provided at schools.

It’s also not clear whether schools would be encouraged to create staggered schedules, which could involve some students arriving in the morning and others in the afternoon. 

At the school level, keeping students apart means setting up classrooms where students sit six feet apart from one another and, when possible, holding classes outside. For classes that must be held inside, there should only be 16 students in a “typical 960 square foot classroom.” That could be extremely difficult in districts like L.A. Unified, where many classes have more than 30 students. 

Schools are also encouraged to put markings on the floor to enforce new “foot traffic patterns” with one-way movement in hallways and inside staircases. Even going to the bathroom, eating lunch and having recess could look very different. The guidance calls for scheduled restroom use and opening cafeterias and recess to students in staggered shifts. For example, lunches and recesses may be limited to one class at a time. 

Specialty classes like gym and band could also be affected under the guidelines. The framework calls for closing gyms and using them to store furniture so classrooms have more space. Band classrooms could be reassigned to “another larger class that may need to stay together,” according to the framework.

Schools will be expected to have sufficient personal protective equipment on hand for staff and students.

For nurses on school campuses, that means surgical masks, non-latex gloves and, in some cases, face shields or other protective eyewear. Other staff and all students should wear face coverings throughout the day.

It may also be necessary to install counter shields in some places where physical distancing is more difficult, such as in the front offices of schools. 

Members of the L.A. County task force that drew up the guidance said Wednesday that they hope to eventually offer more flexibility to districts. But that will depend on guidance from state and county health officials, said Rosemead School District Superintendent Alejandro Ruvalcaba, a member of the task force.

“Depending on what phase of our roadmap to recovery we are on, our instructional model will adapt to that,” he said.

EdSource Reporter Diana Lambert contributed to this report.

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