LA Superintendent Says District Needs To Continue Providing ‘Social Safety Net’ During COVID-19 Closure

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The athletic field is empty at Hollywood High School in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.(Mark J. Terrill/AP)
The athletic field is empty at Hollywood High School in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.(Mark J. Terrill/AP)

At least 33 states and Washington D.C. have ordered school shutdowns to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Millions of schoolchildren are staying home across the country in states including Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana and Washington. On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced New York City public schools are closed effective Monday.

In California, 51% of school districts are shut down — including all 900 campuses in the nation's second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified Schools. Superintendent Austin Beutner says schools will be closed for at least two weeks with no definitive date to reopen.

“We will not reopen our school campuses until we're convinced they're safe,” he says, “for not only our students, but our families, our staff and visitors on those campuses.”

Of the nearly 700,000 LAUSD students, 80% rely on free or reduced lunches and at least 18,000 are homeless. Beutner says the district is working to find safe ways to continue supporting these students.

“We're trying to do our best to make sure we can help be a source of information, be a source of clarity,” he says, “and be a source of some normalcy by continuing to connect students and families with the school community.”

Interview Highlights

On how the district plans to continue supporting students through the closures

“Our focus at this time is really three things. The first is to provide continuity learning for students. We can talk more about that. The second is to make sure we're supporting our students and families most in need. And we want to make sure we also support our employees. We employed more than 75,000 people who help support their families. They're also the frontline supporting our students, so all three of those we're making our priorities at this time.”

On building an at-home curriculum

“We started sort of from both ends. We started with those who were on a one-on-one plan with a classroom teacher. We have a platform, Schoology, where they will continue to do that work, distance learning of a sort. We start at the other end recognizing we serve a very high needs population, more than a quarter of whom don't have access to the internet at home one way, shape or form. So we've created a partnership to go with PBS. We have three channels of content, deep and rich standards-aligned content, one channel for K-3, one channel for middle school and one channel for high school with great learning to be had perhaps by the student, perhaps by the student together with a family member, as a way to bond, as a way to maybe reducing anxiety during this time of stress.”

On how the district plans to support students who are homeless, or who rely on free or reduced lunch

“We need to continue to provide that social safety net to those students and families who are living in poverty and also recognize that many students in our school system are children of hospital workers, public safety personnel, first responders. So we feel a responsibility to make sure those students are safe. If we can help to provide nutrition, if we can help and we're working feverishly with state and local authorities to be able to do that.”

On safety precautions to protect students receiving meals and workers distributing them

“It separates the ability to provide a meal, which we can do in a grab and go sort of approach where the meals can be brought in. They can be prepackaged. We can send an individual child home with a couple meals for the day. We can do that quite safely with the help of the Red Cross and others. We're not yet certain we can deliver on our goal, which is also provide care for a child during the course of the day, because the protocols and advice from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], state, local authorities is changing. So we're reviewing what we have put in place. We will not open those family resource centers unless we're convinced it will be safe for the adults and the children in those centers. Our goal had been Wednesday. We'll have more to share during the course of the day, today and tomorrow as we review the further guidance from health authorities but we're bounded by their expertise, what they tell us is safe and appropriate.”

On what factors will determine when schools reopen

“When we announced closure, we said for the next two weeks with more information to come. We did not establish a date certain to reopen. I don't know that we can do that accurately at this point in time. I don't have a crystal ball. So we're going to continue listening carefully to the state and local health authorities.”

On how parents and caretakers can keep kids safe

“We are fortunate to have the support of our 75,000 employees trying our best to support our students remotely so when we can connect them, we are. ... This is going to have to be a different normal for a while. One of the reasons we're proud of the work we're doing with PBS, is it’s a way to create a new normal in a home setting. So a student might finish their one-on-one learning or their unique assignment on Schoology in AP calculus, but then sit down with a sibling or a family member and take in some other types of learning because it's going to be different. And we know for so many of our students and families, the school is the center of their life. We know the adults in the school are mentors, counselors, friends more than just teachers. So that disruption in their lives causes further anxiety.”

Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 16, 2020.

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Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.



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