‘We want to be very careful’

Despite pressure to reopen Long Beach schools, and LA County restriction waivers to resume in-person instruction, board says Jan. 28 return date is still realistic.

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Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

The Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Board of Education affirmed during its Oct. 7 meeting that schools will likely remain closed until Jan. 28, despite growing pressure from parents and teachers to allow in-person classroom learning.

Most of the district’s more than 70,000 students have been learning virtually online since Sept. 1, initially assuming that in-person classes would resume on Oct. 5.

LBUSD then shifted that date to Jan. 28, the end of the fall semester, citing new directives by the LA County Department of Public Health.

“Long Beach Unified is still not authorized to consider the opening of schools for in-person learning,” Superintendent Jill Baker said in a Sept. 10 video announcing the delay.

Parents and teachers have been vocal with LBUSD since then about problems students are facing in terms of internet connectivity, emotional stress, and eyestrain and headaches from staring at screens for long hours during the school day.

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LA County’s Sept. 29 announcement that elementary schools, including those in Long Beach, can apply for restriction waivers to resume in-person instruction for kindergarten through second grade has only further emboldened voices calling for reopening.

As at most recent meetings, parents and teachers complained to the board on Oct. 7 about remote learning and demanded to know LBUSD’s plans to reopen, especially given the new waiver option.

Melissa Krietzburg, a nurse and parent, urged the board to apply for the waiver, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a virus most people recover from,” she said.

However, board members were uniformly adamant in supporting what President Diana Craighead called a “measured approach” to school reopening.

Dr. Erin Simon, director of student support services, described how LBUSD is “phasing in” reopening by first assessing its impact at each school level using cohorts of 12 students kept separate from each other.

Assessment started on Sept. 28 for preschool students and is pending to begin for elementary-school students, she said.

As to the waiver– which the Long Beach Health Department (LBHD) also started accepting as of Oct. 6–LBUSD is taking steps to apply, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tiffany Brown said.

However, LBHD’s application process is involved, requiring getting support from teacher unions and demonstrating preparedness in safety protocols, COVID testing, contact tracing and flu vaccination, she added.

LBUSD has been in conversation with its teacher unions since last week, she said. The district is also assessing its experience of COVID exposure in a few of the 1,600 students in childcare or preschool since August, she added.

“We want to be very careful in the way we proceed,” Brown said. “We want to be sure that when we move forward with a plan– any type of plan for reopening or bringing students back to our campus– that we can do so in a safe manner and that we can do so with as little disruption as possible.”

Brown also said that if LA County—which is currently in the lowest or “purple” tier of virus spreading– were to move up to the “red” tier or better, that doesn’t mean LBUSD will suddenly open all its schools.

“When we move into the red tier, one of the opportunities within that tier could be a reopening of schools, but we will be proceeding with the phasing-in process for anything that we do,” Brown said. “And we will do that to be as cautious as possible. […] That may take us toward the Jan. 28 date.”

Board member Dr. Juan Benitez agreed with sticking to the Jan. 28 goal and also called out LBHD’s waiver policy as inequitable and “divisive” because it doesn’t include any supporting funds or resources to pay for the testing and other protocols it requires.

“Without resources, it’s very difficult to– with the snap of a finger, from one day to another– be completely prepared to bring back students,” he said. “Waving a magic wand and saying, ‘Okay, you can now submit a waiver,’ with no support or resources, is very problematic.”

He also said the waiver pits stakeholders against each other, creating divisiveness among parents, teachers and LBUSD staff and put an “undue burden” on labor unions.

The waiver also targets students in areas with more vulnerable populations that live more closely together, rely on public transportation and work in services such as restaurants and grocery stores, Benitez said.

“I highly, highly support our district doing its due diligence, right before flu season, to make sure that when […] we bring back students, that we don’t disregard the whole intent of our public education and the mission of our district to be equitable.”

Craighead said the community is also divided between those who want children back in the classroom and those who don’t because of uncertainty and changing information.

“We don’t have all the answers,” she said. “Nobody has all the answers.”

But the district is working on reopening by phasing-in and assessing, beginning with the youngest students, not waiting until Jan. 28, she said.

“I believe in our measured approach of ‘Let’s go slowly,’” Craighead said. “Let’s see how we are able to keep everyone as safe as we can.”

Board member Megan Kerr said the waiver option doesn’t mean the virus situation has gotten better, adding that hurrying is ill-advised when considering tens of thousands of students.

“We can make our schools as safe as possible according to the protocols,” Kerr said. “What we can’t control is what happens outside of schools.”