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School district begins year with distance learning format

Students back in ‘class’ today

OW Staff Writer | 8/20/2020, midnight
A new Los Angeles Unified school year officially began this week amid a pandemic..

A new Los Angeles Unified school year officially began this week amid a pandemic that has forced the district to transition to distance-learning in virtual classrooms as campuses remain closed and offer COVID-19 testing and contact tracing for students and staff.

“We all wish students could be headed back to classrooms as a new school year officially starts,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said. “Unfortunately, it’s not safe and appropriate at this time. As we start the new school year online, each and every one of us in Los Angeles Unified will do our best to help students continue to learn.”

The school year started Monday with teacher training. Students were expected to attend mandatory orientation sessions Tuesday and Wednesday, with the first actual day of instruction beginning at 9 a.m. today.

The distance-learning work plan for the 2020-21 school year was created by bringing together students and families, teachers and staff, school leaders, labor partners and community organizations that met with health experts, reviewed ideas from other school districts and coordinated with state and local health and education authorities.

“The goal is to have as much teacher-led interaction with students as possible,” Beutner said, noting that revamped distance-learning – mostly online—“will have more structure and standards and increased interaction between teachers and students.”

Devices, textbooks and internet access are being provided to families in need, and a Family Helpdesk hotline at (213) 443-1300 and Family and Student Handbook are designed to help navigate online learning. A mental health hotline is also accepting calls.

Schools will provide one-on-one support both in person and online, for students who need it most, he said. A Step Up Tutoring program will utilize volunteers from across the country—screened individuals who are trained students or college graduates—to provide K-8 students with their assistance outside of the regular school day.

Last week, Board of Education members conceded the distance-learning plans aren’t perfect, but they marked an improvement over the online learning that was implemented on the fly in March when the pandemic erupted.

Board member George McKenna said he has “no illusions the students will be as well-served ... with distance-learning as they would be if they could actually be in a classroom with a teacher.”

He added, “All we can do is try to keep our children safe and as well-educated as we can.”

Distance-learning plans for the fall semester include an average school day from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.; targeted small group instruction; opportunities for small group and independent student work; social emotional support for students; instructional training; flexibility for teachers to work on campus or from home; office hours for students and families to connect with teachers; and more. Daily attendance will be taken.

Teachers and others staff members who might be on campus will be provided with childcare, and campuses are being cleaned and supplied with personal protective equipment for those workers and their children – practices that will continue once all students are eventually able to come back to the classroom on a full-time or hybrid basis.

Those workers and their children who are on campus will be tested regularly for coronavirus.

“On an ongoing basis, sample testing based on epidemiological models will be done for each cohort of staff and students. Testing will also be provided to family members of students and staff who test positive for the virus and family members who show symptoms. This will help get students back to school as soon as possible while protecting the health and safety of all in the school community,” Beutner explained, noting that a recent survey of employees found “88 percent felt a robust system of testing and contact tracing at schools would make them safer.”

District officials have not said when all students might be able to return to schools. The District’s 63 Grab ‘N Go Food Centers, which have provided more than 53 million meals, will remain open this fall semester from 8 to 11 a.m. weekdays.