LA County releases new guidelines on reopening schools

The Los Angeles County Office of Education released new guidelines for reopening schools safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The guidelines are not a directive, according to Dr. Debra Duardo, the LA County Superintendent of Schools.

RELATED: LA County school superintendents ask Gov. Newsom for a practical reopening plan

Instead, it's a framework created by a task force of 25 district superintendents and educational leaders.

"They can use parts of it or all of it. The only thing that I believe will be monitored and it's not by the County Office of Education, it will be from the Department of Public Health in terms of ensuring that they're implementing the directives, the safety directives that come from the Department of Public Health," said Duardo.

The guidelines include making masks mandatory for students and teachers, creating one-way hallways, staggering schedules, and having students eat their lunch at their desks. The guidelines also encourage cleaning surfaces and give districts the option to continue distance learning, reopen schools with restrictions or offer a hybrid version of both.

Get breaking news alerts in the FOX 11 News app. Download for iOS or Android.

"This is a framework designed by educators that really understand some of the challenges that they're going to face. The number one concern that everybody has is we want to make sure that when we reopen schools, we can do it in a way that's going to ensure that our children and our employees are safe. In order to make sure they're safe we have to make sure that we are following the directives that come from the Department of Public Health around physical distancing, around students and adults wearing masks, around disinfecting, and those types of things can be a big challenge when you're talking about children," said Duardo.  

School leaders are concerned about implementing the new policies with budget cuts looming.

"The other big challenge is making sure districts have the resources and funding in place to implement these safety measures. We are facing some potential cuts, at least 10 percent to education which is not a time where we feel that that's appropriate given this pandemic and another big concern of course is the loss of instruction and learning. We know that person to person in classroom instruction is better and that students need to come to school and engage with their teachers and friends," said Duardo.

Duardo acknowledges the technology gap in some schools in LA County, and how it makes distance learning a challenge.

RELATED: Stay up to date on all coronavirus-related information

"We need to think about equity in every decision that we make and that should be a part of our thinking about when we return to school, how we're assessing the needs of our students and determining which students have the greatest loss of connection," said Duardo.

The State Superintendent, Tony Thurmond, also held a press conference Wednesday talking about reopening schools. Thurmond called on California's cross-sector partners to accelerate investments that can help California students access technology.

"Before the pandemic, we knew there were huge inequities that existed in regards to student access to devices and internet connectivity. The effects of COVID-19 have only made this more visible and created a sense of urgency that we must address now," said Thurmond.

Thurmond also said the state will be releasing guidelines on reopening schools in days, not weeks. He mentioned what schools can expect, and the expectations echo the guidelines released by LA County Wednesday. Duardo said she has been in contact with Thurmond.

"We just don't want a lot of confusion out there. We understand that reopening may look different throughout various places in LA county and even across the state, but wherever possible we want to align and think about how to best reopen our schools," said Duardo.

A group of eleven superintendents from LA County wrote a letter to Governor Newsom, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, and Dr. Duardo regarding the guidelines, saying they are "not practical." Alex Cherniss, the Superintendent of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District drafted the letter and the ten other superintendents signed it.  

"We all want to open schools and we want to do it in a safe way, but some of these issues around these guidelines particularly six feet apart does not allow us to open school every day," said Cherniss.

Cherniss said if districts continue distance learning, many parents will not be able to return to work.

"Our students need school every day, and without that, there's going to be huge learning loss and our parents won't be able to get back to work," he said.

Cherniss points to factual reports about the struggles children are facing by being out of school to reiterate why reopening schools is important.

"We are hearing from child psychologists that we're having increased childhood depression and suicide,"  said Cherniss.

He said the guidelines, as they are now, are not reasonable.  

"They're doable [the guidelines] if a parent is willing to send their child to school every other day or for a couple of hours a day, but how does that support student learning and how are families able to get back to work?" said Cherniss.  

Cherniss has now sent a letter to President Trump to make him aware of the guidelines in LA County and ask for changes.  

"This needs to be a national conversation. What I'm asking for is a reasonable, practical conversation about this and guidelines that make sense rather than guidelines that are applying to commercial business. I'm hoping that at the federal level this becomes a conversation because this isn't just a conversation at the state level. The state and the country asking us to do more with less, it's impossible to do and to require kids to wear masks all day and not fund them isn't reasonable," he said.  

UTLA also responded to the school reopening guidelines with a statement:

Any state and county guidance is only a framework — every school district will develop its own plan. That is why reopening schools must be bargained with UTLA. And it’s why we are surveying our members on their priorities; working closely with the parent, youth, and community organizations on their priorities; and then taking these priorities into that bargaining.

Educators want more than anything to be back in schools with our students, whom we love. But, we also understand deeply that the only way this can happen is if schools are healthy, safe, and improved. The status quo will not be enough to safeguard students and educators alike.

UTLA is fighting against proposed budget cuts and for increased funding essential to guarantee a safe return to schools. A healthy, safe reopening cannot happen amidst budget cuts. That is a fantasy. We are fighting the proposed $13 billion in budget cuts.

There is no vision for a safe reopening that does not involve additional resources for schools — resources to implement social distancing and other safety guidelines and funding for the additional supports our students need in the wake of this crisis, including increased mental health support.

We know that the health and safety of our communities depend on getting the reopening right. We can’t underestimate the challenge of opening schools in a way that protects students and staff and prevents children from becoming carriers for infection in their own families.

This is especially critical in LA, with our students living with so many of the equity issues that coronavirus has laid bare: students in high-density living situations with multi generational families; the disproportionate exposure and death rates among communities of color, especially Pacific Islander and Black communities; and a lack of accessibility to healthcare. We also know that, as various sectors reopen for business, parents and guardians will return to work and will not have the choice that others have to keep their children at home safely.

We are also clear that a reopening and improvement plan must extend to our communities. Our students are shaped by all aspects of their lives. The reopening of schools must be coordinated with massive investment in housing, healthcare, replacement pay, and jobs.