The exact figures may change slightly over the next few weeks, but for the most part, parents and students in the massive Los Angeles Unified School District have had their say. In overwhelming numbers, it appears, they’re not going back to the classroom this school year.
It’s not for a lack of effort on the part of the LAUSD, the nation’s second-largest school district with more than 600,000 students. Quite the opposite: After spending many months describing why it wasn’t safe for students to return to class, district administrators have launched a recent media blitz aimed at convincing families it’s OK to send their children back to campus — an effort that includes detailed explanations of the mitigation and sanitizing measures in place at every school.
But the reluctance is real. It is borne out by LAUSD’s own survey data, which indicates that as of April 1, only about 38% of elementary school children will return to campuses when they reopen in mid-April. Among middle schoolers, the figure drops to 25%, and among high school students it plummets to 16%.
In L.A.’s hard hit lower income neighborhoods, COVID infection rates remain higher than average, and vaccination outreach in those communities continues to lag.
Because those survey figures assume that any nonresponding family is going to remain in distance learning, there’s some wiggle room in the numbers. But that is basically the reality facing the district. This deep into the school year, with the COVID-19 pandemic still very present, the vast majority of families are choosing to ride it out at home and perhaps hope for a less disruptive choice when classes resume next fall.
In L.A.’s hard hit lower income neighborhoods, COVID infection rates remain higher than average, and vaccination outreach in those communities continues to lag. LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said last week that vaccination rates for those age 18 and older in the city are as high as 40% in some neighborhoods, but as low as 10% in others, and “Unfortunately, many of the communities served by schools in Los Angeles Unified are at the lower levels.” It is estimated that about 80% of the district’s students come from low income households.
“We hear directly from families what their concern is. It’s not the relative safety of schools,” Beutner said in a video update posted to the district’s website. “They know in Los Angeles we’ve created the safest possible school environment.” Rather, the superintendent said, many families are worried that their children will catch the virus from others who show up on campus, then bring it home. For some families, that could mean the risk of infecting adults who absolutely cannot afford to stop working if they get sick.
That concern isn’t limited to the poorest neighborhoods. “It’s not that I don’t trust the district,” Teresa Gaines, the parent of two elementary students in Mar Vista, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s that I don’t trust 12-plus other families in a cohort to use safe protocols off campus. I’m not ready to mix my kids with 60 to 70 people outside of my family.”
There are other reasons to wonder about the timing of reopening schools, though. Los Angeles County’s “R” number — that is, the calculated rate of COVID-19 transmission — has been steadily rising for the past several weeks. In a recent media session, County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the number was 0.93 at the beginning of March, up from 0.87 in late February. An R number over 1.0 suggests that the virus is continuing to spread in a given area rather than receding, so any uptick toward that figure is worrisome to health officials. The county’s predictive modeling shows an R number of 0.95 for early March.
A growing understanding of the variants of the virus also reveals the troubling news that these newer strains may infect children more easily than do the older ones. With those variants now…