Schools in the Southland and throughout the state won't be the same if and when they reopen this fall, with California education officials releasing new safety guidelines Monday that include small classroom cohorts, face masks, virtual field trips, half-empty school buses and other changes to protect against the spread of coronavirus.
"As we prepare to move into the likely reopening of our schools, we provide this guidance as a 'how to,"' State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said about the 55-page document titled "Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California's Public Schools," which details the need for changes to accommodate physical distancing.
All schools in the state closed in March due to stay-at-home orders protecting against the spread of COVID-19. Reopening dates have not yet been set.
Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo said the state's guidebook contains many of the same considerations included in the 45page framework released on May 27 on behalf of the county's 80 school districts. Both sets of guidelines are recommendations only, not requirements individual school districts are responsible for developing their own reopening plans.
"Both sets of guidelines recognize that the health and safety of students, staff and families must always come first. They are built on the directives of public health authorities and are subject to change as the health crisis evolves," Duardo said.
"Education leaders must ensure that schools reopen with a focus on safety, well-being and continuity of learning according to the needs of their diverse communities," she said. "While it is enormously challenging to implement physical distancing in schools, we must make it work given our charge to protect the state's most precious resource -- our children."
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner, who congratulated this spring's graduating class in a video posted online Monday, declined to comment on the state's new guidelines. However, he stated in a video posted last week on the district's website that he does not yet know what LAUSD schools will look like on Aug. 18.
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"If you're expecting a few talking points about moving desks and wearing masks, you're watching the wrong speech," he said. "This is complicated work and we take it very seriously -- lives and futures are at stake. Returning to school facilities will need to balance three sometimes competing priorities: the health and safety of all in the school community, the impact of the pandemic on jobs and families and the educational needs of students."
He said any plan for returning to schools must carefully be conducted with health officials, labor partners and families and that "science tells us there is currently no way to be back to school facilities without risk" since there's not yet a vaccine.
The superintendent said he has questions about virus testing for students and staff, as well as contact tracing and what the protocols will be if someone tests positive at a school.
"As hard as it was to close school facilities, returning to them will be much more difficult," he said, calling it a "delicate dance," and one that is critical since youngsters need to get back into the classroom.
"By Aug. 18, it will be about five months since students were in school," he said last week. "There has been no time in modern history where students have been absent from school for such a long period. And for some … there may be a lifelong impact if they are not back in school sometime soon."
Beutner emphasized that there is no substitute for learning in a school setting, and that many students are falling behind where they should be - at the same time as families struggle to put food on the table, with half of the families served by LAUSD reporting job losses in the midst of the pandemic.
"Unfortunately, it's not as simple as wearing masks, moving the desks or putting some painters tape on the floor to keep students further apart," he said. "We are continuing to plan for different scenarios, but have made no decision … We owe it to all in the school community to make sure we do this the right way. You can expect regular updates on this topic and a more definitive plan within the next month or so."