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Schools dealing with closures could learn from Los Angeles Unified

Los Angeles Unified has had necessary COVID safety precautions in place since returning to in-person learning in August.
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In summary

Los Angeles Unified has had necessary COVID safety precautions in place since returning to in-person learning in August.

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By Glenn Sacks, Special to CalMatters

Glenn Sacks teaches social studies at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. His columns on education have been published in dozens of America’s largest publications.

The standoff over schools and COVID-19 has devolved into a battle of false alternatives – open the schools or close them. 

The forces aligned against teachers unions have almost completely ignored the causes of the conflicts between teachers and the school districts, instead portraying the problem as teacher-union power plays and teachers not wanting to work.

Large school districts, including San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and others experiencing COVID-related school closures, could learn a lot from the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles. 

Unlike many districts, Los Angeles Unified has the necessary COVID safety precautions in place and has had them since we returned to in-person learning in August.

Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg accuses teachers in Chicago, where the conflict over closing schools has been most acute, of a “profoundly troubling abdication of duty that should be met with public outrage.” Journalist Matthew Yglesias blames the various teacher vs. district standoffs on the “the recalcitrance of teachers unions.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie condemns President Joe Biden, who he says is a “captive” of teachers unions. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot accuses the Chicago Teachers Union of “taking our children hostage” and of having “abandoned their kids and their families.”

Yet teachers union demands nationwide, including the Chicago Teachers Union’s, have been reasonable and, compared to what has already been implemented in Los Angeles, quite minimal.

For example, on the issue of testing, the Chicago Teachers Union merely asks for a “screening test program” that, on a randomized basis, “tests at least 10% of the student and staff population every week at every school and worksite.” The union also asks that all staff be tested prior to returning to in-person learning.

At Los Angeles Unified, everybody gets tested every week, and anyone who doesn’t have a negative test result can’t come to school. We’ve proven this can be implemented and made routine with only a modest amount of disruption.

Los Angeles Unified’s James Monroe High School, where I teach, is typical. Every Thursday a COVID testing team sets up in our multipurpose room. All students are tested – one week all the English teachers take their classes, next week the math teachers, etc.

The testing was rocky at first and some teachers, myself included, complained about the wasted time. Yet within a few weeks it was running efficiently, and testing now usually takes only 10 to 15 minutes.

All teachers and support staff are also tested. Everybody gets their test results back in 24 to 48 hours, delivered via email and also on our “Daily Pass” phone app.

Each morning all students and staff must generate a Daily Pass, which certifies that they have a current, negative test result and are thus eligible to enter campus. The students line up and present their Daily Pass’ QR code to the administrators and support staff for scanning, and the lines move quickly.

When there is a positive test result, administrators are notified, and the student isolates. There is contact tracing – all teachers have submitted their classroom seating charts to the administration, so when there is a positive test result, administrators can quickly identify the students most likely to be exposed.

Masks are readily available for students and staff, as is hand sanitizer. We have proper ventilation and filters, and each school site has a COVID Task Force in which both union representatives and administrators participate.

Los Angeles Unified encouraged students to get vaccinated and provided the shots, and districtwide more than 80% of the students aged 12 and older are vaccinated. All teachers and support staff at school sites must be vaccinated. 

Given the recent COVID spike, Los Angeles Unified has mandated that all students and staff be tested before going back to school and has provided for extensive testing at school sites.

Certainly Los Angeles Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles have clashed over COVID safeguards at times, and nobody on either side believes there is a way to make schools completely safe in the COVID era. And like many districts, we are short of available teachers and our staffs are currently spread very thin.

Yet while district leaders in Chicago and elsewhere portray teachers unions’ safety demands as unrealistic and difficult to implement, Los Angeles Unified, with more students than San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland combined, has implemented a system which has kept kids safe while keeping schools open.

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Glenn Sacks has also written about what many don’t understand about reopening schools, misplaced anger at teachers over reopening, smaller classes benefit students most in need, and distorting the history of D-Day.