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Los Angeles Unified, Nation's Second Largest School District, Will Start This Fall Online05:41
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Two security guards talk on the campus of the closed McKinley School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) system, in Compton, California. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
Two security guards talk on the campus of the closed McKinley School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) system, in Compton, California. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest public school system, announced Monday that it would remain entirely online as school begins again in August, with no set date to return to the classroom.

San Diego Unified School District joined with LAUSD to announce its intention to keep campuses closed indefinitely.

LA Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner says his district made its decision based on growing COVID-19 numbers in the Los Angeles region, and the risk to teachers, staff and family members of the district’s 600,000 students.

“We have young children in small rooms with vulnerable adults,” he says. “We are a petri dish.”

Beutner says the district understands families’ frustration and the challenges working families face, but that Los Angeles public schools are prioritizing “health and safety.”

The decision by California’s two largest school districts comes just days after President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos threatened to withhold federal funds from schools that don’t reopen. Beutner says he’s not concerned about losing funding.

“The will of Congress and the intention of elected officials is to make sure that the funds go to students who need it,” he says.

Meanwhile in neighboring Orange County, the school board voted Monday night to recommend campuses reopen without mandatory masks, a decision Beutner criticizes as “a big mistake” that could put people at risk.

“I struggle to see how that group of leaders passed a 10th-grade science class,” he says. “They'll be running a giant experiment with children and adults, putting their lives at risk.”

Interview Highlights

On why he’s keeping schools closed indefinitely

“It's the science. … Like every school district, we balance three sometimes conflicting objectives: the learning needs of students, the impact the virus is having on working families that we serve, and the health and safety of all in the school community. And if you look at these skyrocketing rates of virus in our community, you look at [our] rate twice the World Health Organization guidelines of positivity on tests for the virus, and you look at studies in Italy which show half the people in a quarantined town showed no symptoms when they were tested positive ... you put all those three things together and say, we can't be safely back at schools. Now, our goal is to get back as soon as possible. But health and safety first.”

On Florida Republican Gov. Ron Desantis’ comments that if Walmart can open, schools can open

“Schools are different than Walmarts. … It's not a 10-year-old in isolation. It's a 10-year-old with a 30-year-old teacher and a 50-year-old bus driver, who goes home to a 70-year-old grandmother. We have a high school with about 2,800 students and staff who have regular contact every day with another 100,000 people. … Not so simple. Can't just tap our heels like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and get right back to school. Got to make sure it's safe. And until the virus in our community is at a lesser level, below World Health Organization guidelines, it's just not safe.”

On what essential workers are supposed to do for child care with schools online

“Schools are the center of the community, and many of the challenges communities face present themselves in schools. Poverty presents itself in schools. More than 80% of the families we serve are working families who live below the poverty line. We know from surveys, since the pandemic came, more than half have someone in the family who's lost work due to the virus. But if we can't be back at school safely, we as an entire community — cities, counties, states, employers — have to find a way to provide that margin of safety in child care if appropriate.

“But we're not a relief organization for everything that ails society. Our primary mission is to educate kids and do so safely. And if it's not safe to bring people back, we've got to solve that problem. Now, we put a solution on the table, which is testing and contact tracing. If you look around the world where school communities have come back to facilities, they've done three things. The first is a different set of health practices, which are fairly well-chronicled: the masks, the cleaning and sanitizing, keeping people further apart. We can do that. But in other parts of the world, they've done two other things. They test routinely, all in the school community, and they trace the contacts of those who are positive. … We do all three things, we can be back sooner. And that's where the focus should be.”

On going back to school in the fall if the situation improves

“We want to be back as soon as possible. We all recognize the best learning happens in a school setting. We all understand working families need to be back at work. The safety net we provide — we've provided more than 45 million meals to children and adults ... since school shut down. We understand the need for families to have some sense of normalcy in their lives. But we can't just wave a wand and make it happen. We're going back as soon as possible.

“And the piece that we should be talking about is the testing and the contact tracing, because the communities around the world who've done it right where it stands the test of time are doing that. And we think schools are the place to do it because we have cohorts, we have the same defined group of people every day we can adequately and properly trace. They're known to us. We know the cohort. We have good contact information, and we go outside that first concentric circle and reach out to families. They'll take our phone call. We're trusted.”

On whether he’s concerned the LAUSD will lose funding given President Trump’s threat to withhold federal funding for schools that don't reopen

“Not the slightest bit. ... We run a public education system. We are that path out of poverty for some, and the promise of a great opportunity for all. And public education is about making sure we take care of the needs of the community, including making sure all in schools are in an appropriate and safe environment. I don't think, despite the rhetoric, we're going to be in a position where funds are cut off from schools or forcing schools to bring children and adults back in a place that's not safe.”

On whether he has the funding to provide laptops, internet and other resources to students

“We suffer from a lack of adequacy of funding. We did before the pandemic. We have class sizes that are too big. We don't have nurses in every school. We have libraries without librarians. And one of the symptoms ... is the lack of technology and tools to go immediately online.

“We found a way. We provided computers to all half a million students. We provided free internet access to those who need it because more than a quarter of our students didn't have access to the internet at home. So we've done that. It costs money. It's going to ... continue to do so. And if the federal government wants students back in school, wants students learning, [it must] provide the funds for the devices and the connectivity, provide the funds for testing and tracing. ... My hope is the next round of stimulus relief really focuses on the most important federal role, which is to provide the funding, so we can do what we need to do in schools.”


Francesca Paris produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Paris adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 14, 2020.

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