BRENTWOOD >> Even just five minutes on the playground with his classmates was enough to brighten Sawyer Stout’s day.
When the fourth grader first returned to in-person learning at Kenter Canyon Elementary Charter School in April, the play structures were off limits to students, as Los Angeles Unified School District officials cautiously reopened campuses. But on Monday, May 3, students in elementary schools and early education centers throughout the district were again permitted to go on the playgrounds.
Only one cohort of students can be on the playground at a time, and the play structures are disinfected in between use.
Because of the need to wait until the structures had been sanitized, Sawyer said he and his classmates only got a few minutes to run around the playground.
“Basically I only got about five minutes, but it was so fun,” said the 10-year-old, who played a socially distant game of shadow tag, where the person who was “it” would tag their classmate’s shadow.
For Jamie Stout, Sawyer’s mother, learning that her three children will have opportunities to play on the playground again was welcome news.
“It’s nice to get some resemblance of school being back to normal … especially for my kindergartner, who has never had school before,” she said. “It means a lot to me, especially for him, that he gets to play with his peers.”
Superintendent Austin Beutner, who was at Kenter to help celebrate the reopening of the playgrounds, said the district had always intended to allow access to the play structures but wanted to make sure students understood the rules first.
“First we wanted to bring students back, make sure they could wear their masks in small groups, practice social distancing,” he said. “Once we had that foundation in place, we feel comfortable opening school playgrounds again.”
The same strategy will apply to the upper grades, where small cohorts of students may be allowed to mingle once administrators feel comfortable that students in secondary schools understand the safety protocols, Beutner said.
Reopening challenges continue
Overall, the reopening of campuses in the nation’s second-largest school district has gone “remarkably well,” Beutner also said Monday, during his weekly community update.
The main challenges right now are in making sure the district has enough people to staff its child care program and enough clinicians to administer all the weekly COVID-19 tests that students and staff who are on campus are required to take, the superintendent said, adding that the district is making progress in both matters.
While the reopening of schools has had its hiccups, Beutner said it’s important to remember that LAUSD is one of only a few large, urban districts in the state to offer elementary students a “full-day” program, five days a week. Although students can be on campus from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., some parents have scoffed at calling it a full-day program, since students are in class for three hours. The rest of the time consists of recess, lunch and child care, where students may receive help with homework or take part in other activities.
Beutner also noted during his update that LAUSD is the only district in the country that is regularly administering COVID-19 tests to all students and staff who return to campuses.
“We know we’re stretching ourselves to provide both of these, but they reflect our continuing commitment to do the best we can for students and families that we serve,” Beutner said about the child care and COVID-19 testing programs.
Last week, the district identified 21 students and seven staff members who had returned to school and tested positive for the coronavirus, Beutner said. In nearly every case, the person who tested positive was contacted within a day and informed not to return to campus until they’re no longer contagious, he said.
He stressed that there have been no cases of the coronavirus at schools associated with anyone who tested positive and attributed this to the health and safety protocols that the district is following.
Addressing learning loss
While attendance is starting to increase at reopened schools as more families grow comfortable with the idea of sending their children back, Beutner said the “troubling fact” remains that far fewer low-income students from high-needs communities are returning to in-person learning compared to wealthier students.
“If we truly believe in a greater push for equity in public schools, this is the challenge of the moment,” he said. “How do we help families understand it’s safe for their child to be back in school, and how do we provide more time in a school classroom when students do return to help them make up for lost time?”
The superintendent had proposed adding 10 days to the next school year — about half of which would be extra instructional days for students with the remaining days dedicated to professional development for staff.
But according to the teachers union, 75% of union members who were surveyed opposed extending the school year. School board member Jackie Goldberg also recently said requiring more school days may be too taxing on students who are already exhausted from dealing with the pandemic.
When asked, Beutner would not say if he will continue to push for an extended school year, saying instead that the school board will discuss the matter at its Tuesday meeting.
School board member Nick Melvoin, who was also at Kenter school on Monday, said rather than mandate an extended school year, one option would be to let schools decide if they would like to offer additional instructional time for the 2021-22 year, such as providing an “academy” week at the start of fall semester or an early start to help students — many of whom won’t have been in a classroom since March 2020 — to transition back to in-person learning.
Melvoin said he had not seen what options district staff plans to recommend to the board this week.
“I think that there’s been an evolution of thinking as we’ve talked to our labor partners and parents,” Melvoin said. “The superintendent’s idea that students need more time in seats … is the right approach. I think having to balance the concerns of teachers and parents and the different parts of the district means that (the proposal) is probably going to have evolved in a way that’s not where it started, but I still think what he was trying to do initially is admirable.”