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Schools may see smaller classes in fall, county says

LOS ANGELES — Schools won’t be the same if and when they reopen this fall, with education officials suggesting steps such as staggered school days, 16-person class sizes, lunches inside classrooms, face masks and other changes to protect against the spread of coronavirus.

Those steps were among the recommended safety guidelines detailed in the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s 45-page framework, a document developed through the work of county staffers, outside advisers and representatives from 25 county school systems, each of which is responsible for developing its own reopening plan.

On a day when county public health director Barbara Ferrer announced 53 more deaths due to COVID-19, bringing the countywide number of fatalities to 2,201, and another 933 confirmed cases of the illness, county schools took the first steps toward resuming classes since stay-at-home orders were issued to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Reopening dates have not yet been set.

“Our main priority is health and safety,” said Debra Duardo, superintendent of the county’s Office of Education, which provides services and financial oversight for the county’s 80 school systems serving nearly 2 million students. “Unfortunately some of the things that children could enjoy in the past, they’re not going to be able to do that.”

Severe safety restrictions on student and educator activities are detailed in the framework, however, the guidelines are not requirements, only suggestions for each district to consider. The only requirements each district must comply with are those set by health officials.

“It’s going to be hard to ensure the safe physical reopening of campuses, but one thing that we absolutely know we need to do is we need to be prepared and we need to have plans in place so that we are ready when the time comes for us to reopen,” Duardo said.

But beyond the framework, Duardo said that — if schools are to reopen this fall — districts still need more guidance from health officials and more financial support from legislators to rise to the challenge of reopening during the pandemic.

“We know schools will need additional resources to become better equipped and skilled at remote learning, address learning loss, implement vital health and safety protocols and support mental health and wellness,” the head of nation’s largest regional education agency said. “We are operating under the cloud of massive budget cuts and uncertainty about the pandemic. Schools are going to face extraordinary challenges in ensuring the safe physical reopening of campuses.”

Duardo said closing schools this spring and moving to online classrooms proved that schools and educators are flexible and innovative, but the situation has also exacerbated educational inequities that existed prior to the pandemic.

“Far too many of our young people not only lack resources to participate in remote learning but are also dealing with food insecurity, homelessness, additional anxiety and fear,” Duardo said. “They’ve not only fallen behind academically, their physical and mental health has suffered, and our schools need more resources than ever to support wellness, to tackle the learning loss, and to make sure all students get the full range of services they need to be successful.”

School leaders have reported uneven student engagement and impediments to learning at home, underscoring the importance of the need to return students to campus, even though the governor’s proposed budget cuts school funding by roughly 10%.

Among the challenges faced by districts, leaders noted that some schools don’t have nurses on campus because there’s been a shortage in that field and not all schools have the funding available to hire them.

Still, Duardo said most district superintendents she’s talked to are eager to have students return this fall, so long as they have the resources and personal protective equipment to do so safely.

The majority of [superintendents] that I’ve listened to are really looking to have some type of program where students are physically back in school in the fall,” she said.

In the meantime, Duardo said the Los Angeles County Office of Education will continue to advocate for what she called “adequate funding” for public education, which she said is critical to California’s future.

United Teachers Los Angeles, which also is fighting against the $13 million proposed budget cuts, issued a response to the framework document, with union representatives noting that school reopenings must be bargained with UTLA.

“We are surveying our members on their priorities; working closely with parents, youth and community organizations on their priorities; and then taking these priorities into that bargaining,” UTLA officials said.

“Educators want more than anything to be back in schools with our students … but we also understand deeply that the only way this can happen is if schools are healthy, safe and improved.”

Union reps emphasized that schools need more money, not budget cuts, to guarantee a safe return to classrooms.

“There is no vision for a safe reopening that does not involve additional resources for schools — resources to implement social distancing and other safety guidelines and funding for the additional support our students need in the wake of this crisis.”