Return to classrooms full time is put on hold at LAUSD

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Students arrive for hybrid learning at J.H. McGaugh Elementary school in Seal Beach in September 2020. Plans to offer full-time instruction at LAUSD schools are on hold after a shift in guidance from California health officials. Photo by Jeannette Andruss

The Los Alamitos Unified School District’s plan to have students on campus full-time this academic year is on hold.

District officials say it’s because of revised guidance from the California Department of Public Health that states students’ chairs must be spaced at least four feet apart in classrooms to minimize transmission of COVID-19.

LAUSD Superintendent Dr. Andrew Pulver says the spacing minimum, revised by CDPH on January 14, could impact plans for the next school year which is slated to start in August.

“I’m most concerned about next year,” Dr. Pulver said in a phone interview on Monday. “This guidance can’t be the same for next year. It will severely limit options for families.”

LAUSD, which has nine schools across Los Alamitos, Rossmoor, and Seal Beach, was one of the first public school districts in Orange County to get a waiver from health officials to welcome students back on campuses in September 2020.

In-person learning has been in a hybrid model where a smaller cohort of students is on campus for a shorter school day. Other LAUSD students are enrolled in an all virtual learning option known as LosAl@Home.

Approximately 76% of the district’s roughly 10,000 students are in hybrid and 24% are enrolled in LosAl@Home, according to Dr. Pulver.

The district had floated possibly transitioning to full-day in-person instruction at its six elementary campuses this spring. But in a message to LAUSD families sent on Feb. 25, Dr. Pulver shared that the shift in guidance had put the district in “a holding pattern” meaning campuses must stay in the existing hybrid program for grades TK-12.

“If the CDPH alters its guidance on physical distancing, we will reassess any plans for a return to full, traditional program,” he wrote.

In the message, Dr. Pulver explained that previous guidance on distance between students stated, “if six-foot separation was not possible, spacing and use of desk shields to the greatest extent feasible was sufficient without a minimum separation.”The new guidance states: “Under no circumstances should distance between student chairs be less than 4 feet.”

“That creates a major obstacle to opening campuses to normal class size due to lack of space for that level of distancing,” Marlys Davidson, President of the LAUSD Board of Education wrote in a part of a statement to the Event-News Enterprise.

Dr. Pulver said he and other superintendents in Orange County met with a representative from the CDPH and continue to meet regularly with the Orange County Health Care Agency to voice concerns.

“We want to have flexibility with spacing,” Dr. Pulver said.

He said once the revised guidance came down, LAUSD officials starting measuring classrooms to see what was possible. Dr. Pulver said they are looking at options including possibly ordering smaller desks.

“I’m optimistic that the guidance will change but I can’t not plan if it doesn’t,” he said.

Parents React

“It was kind of, like, deflating.”

That’s how parent Jackie Aker described feeling after learning full-time in-person instruction might not happen. Aker has two children attending hybrid classes at Weaver Elementary in Rossmoor. In a recent phone interview, she praised the district for giving parents options, but admitted she hoped students would be on campus full-time this academic year which ends in June.

Aker said her kindergartener needs more live instruction and she’s hired a tutor to help him. She said she feels stuck. “It’s like we’re never going to get out of this hybrid,” Aker said.

“I think the district’s hands are tied,” said the parent of a 7th grader enrolled in the hybrid pathway at Oak Middle School. “It’s frustrating to me.” (The parent did not want to be identified because she is a teacher in another Southern California school district.)

She understood that guidelines are changing but believes the district can figure out how to do full-time instruction safely and applauded measures Oak’s principal was taking to maximize students’ in-person instruction. The parent says she feels it’s what’s best for her student’s social and emotional health. “In my heart of hearts, I feel kids need to be social.”

Another parent with two students enrolled in online-only LosAl@Home said she was grateful the district was continuing to follow safety guidelines. “The blended hybrid learning keeps our students, staff and community safe while also making sure that we are meeting the needs of our students who are still virtually learning,” she wrote in a text message but asked not to use her name.

“Staying safe is our highest priority right now,” she added but expressed optimism that a decline in COVID cases in the county and vaccines being offered to teacher and school-based employees could lead to a more “normal” school experience in the fall.

Five OC school districts offer full-time instruction

Orange County has 28 K-12 public school districts. All but four are currently offering some form of in-person instruction, according to the Orange County Department of Education.

An interactive map updated regularly by California’s Safe Schools for All initiative shows what school districts are offering.

Cypress School District is one of five districts in Orange County offering in-person full-day instruction five days a week at its elementary schools, according to OCDE. Cypress is offering online-only, hybrid and full-day in-person instruction to students, according to its website. The website states the full-day program has class sizes of 26 students and students’ chairs are distanced at least four feet apart.

Orange Unified School District also offers families the option of a full day at school with no more than 20 students per classroom. According to its website, students in this option are with their teacher 50% of the time and with a “collaborative paraeducator, Instructional Specialist, Education Specialist and/or other instructional staff” the other 50% of the time.

Dr. Pulver said he has reached out to Cypress and other districts and learned that they have fewer students and their class sizes are relatively smaller than LAUSD’s.

He said if the spacing guidance changes he would hope to get back to full-time instruction this year but his focus is also on the future: “We’re all concerned about next year and we want to give our families as much notice as possible.”

Find Jeannette Andruss on Twitter: @NetteAndruss

Return to classrooms full time is put on hold at LAUSD