• We need a Marshall Plan for our schools. And we need it now. - Washington Post

    Posted by LA Unified on 12/13/2020

    Published in the Washington Post

    By Austin Beutner, Richard Carranza and Janice Jackson

    Richard Carranza, Austin Beutner and Janice Jackson are superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, respectively.

    President-elect Joe Biden has described the crisis in public schools caused by the pandemic as a “national emergency.” As the superintendents of the nation’s three largest public school districts — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — every day we grapple with the challenges that worry not just the president-elect but also the students and families we serve. Our schools, like thousands more across the nation, need help from the federal government, and we need it now.

    The challenges school communities face aren’t for lack of effort by principals, teachers, staff, parents and students. Among our three districts, more than 2 million students and hundreds of thousands of educators have worked to transform teaching and learning from the inside out. We’ve seen teachers tackle long division from their kitchens and students debate the Constitution in Spanish from their living rooms.

    But the fact is that for many — if not most — children, online and even hybrid education pales in comparison to what’s possible in a classroom led by a great teacher. Too many children are falling behind, threatening not just their individual futures but also America’s global competitiveness.

    In Los Angeles Unified, where almost 80 percent of students live in poverty and 82 percent are Latino and African American, Ds and Fs by high school students have increased about 15 percent compared with last year. Meanwhile, reading proficiency in elementary grades has fallen 10 percent. In Illinois, students have lost more than a year of math progress. In New York City, 82 percent of students are children of color, largely from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, suffering tremendous loss and trauma that accompanies kids into the classroom. Across the country, math performance on standardized tests lags the prior year by 5 to 10 percentile points.

    It’s time to treat the dire situation facing public school students with the same federal mobilization we have come to expect for other national emergencies, such as floods, wildfires and hurricanes. A major, coordinated nationwide effort — imagine a Marshall Plan for schools — is needed to return children to public schools quickly in the safest way possible.

    Schools have shown that they can stay open safely despite community spread of the virus, but that demands the right set of actions, and adequate financial support, to bring students back safely and address the impact of this crisis head on.

    Part of the problem is that the Cares Act and subsequent relief packages did not designate public school districts as recipients. Direct federal support for schools must be specific and targeted.

    A federal relief package for schools should cover the basic building blocks of a safe, healthy and welcoming school environment so that educators and students can focus exclusively on their mission: high-quality teaching and learning. Funds should be provided directly to public school districts for four essential programs: cleaning and sanitizing of facilities and providing protective equipment; school-based coronavirus testing and contact tracing to help reduce the risk for all in the school community; mental health support for students to address the significant trauma they are facing; and funding for in-person instruction next summer to help students recover from learning losses because of the pandemic. Many local districts have poured resources into these efforts, and places such as New York City have seen success. But it’s simply not sustainable without federal support, and as covid-19 infection rates surge across the country, the pandemic shows no sign of slowing.

    The cost of this lifeline for schools — an estimated $125 billion — is less than 20 percent of the total earmarked for the Paycheck Protection Program and about twice the amount provided to airlines. That’s a relatively small price to safely reopen the public schools that give millions of children a shot at the American Dream and their families the chance to get back to work.

    Getting children back in the classroom and helping them recover must be addressed by the federal government with the same urgency and commitment as other disasters. Failure to do so will allow a “national emergency” to become a national disgrace that will haunt millions of children for the rest of their lives.

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  • Getting kids back in classrooms should be a top pandemic priority, LAUSD superintendent says - Los Angeles Times

    Posted by LA Unified on 11/17/2020

    Published in the Los Angeles Times

    By Austin Beutner

    Tomorrow, if you were so inclined, you could take your family and walk into the Glendale Galleria without so much as a temperature check, and then spend hours browsing alongside hundreds of shoppers from all parts of Los Angeles.

    What you cannot do is drop your children off at their neighborhood schools for a day of instruction in classrooms where access would be carefully controlled, students and desks carefully spaced apart, all rooms deep-cleaned daily and every student, teacher and staff member tested regularly for coronavirus.

    Eight months into a pandemic that’s likely to stretch well into next year, the level of COVID-19 is rising, and our priorities are misplaced. Malls simply shouldn’t be a higher priority for reopening than public schools that provide millions of children with the foundations in reading, math and critical thinking they need to succeed in school and in life.

    Schools must come first, not last. Prioritizing education requires every Californian — from the governor down — to take the steps necessary to lower community transmission to a level where it’s appropriate for kids and teachers to return to schools. Once they’re there, we’ll do our part to keep them — and the broader community — safe.
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    Without significant changes in policies and priorities, it is unlikely that schools in Los Angeles will reopen for in-person instruction any time soon. Under current rules, before they can reopen, the Los Angeles area would have to reduce the spread of the coronavirus enough to move out of the state’s highest level of exposure riskfor at least a month. That’s necessary to keep students, teachers and staff safe, but we haven’t come close to achieving that since the pandemic began. And things are getting worse, not better: Los Angeles County last week reported the highest number of new cases since the summer.

    We cannot shrug off rising case counts as inevitable. All of us need to work to lower virus levels by wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding gatherings and staying home whenever possible so we can get children back to school.

    Time away from teachers, friends and the structure of a classroom is harming children. Many students are struggling with online learning, in particular young learners, students learning English, students with differences and disabilities, and students who were struggling before school facilities closed. All students need the opportunity to be back in the classroom, where the best learning takes place.

    Even before the pandemic, more than 80% of the students in the L.A. Unified School District came from families living below the poverty level, and estimates are that 75% of those families have had someone lose work due to COVID-19. The virus is having a disproportionate effect on low-income families. We must provide the option for students to be at schools if that’s what their families choose. And we have to do this in a way that protects the health and safety of all in the school community — students, staff and their families.

    Rather than wait for the rest of society to reopen and stay open before we even contemplate reopening schools, California needs to recognize the vital role schools play in the lives of children and working families and make students a top priority.

    Earlier this month, L.A. Unified led seven of the state’s largest school districts in asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to adopt a clear and consistent framework that could be applied across the state for all school districts to reopen. California has long maintained a set of strict standards for health, education and employee practices in schools. This crisis is not a time to lessen safety or education standards but to enforce them uniformly.

    The effort should start with a mandate by the state to cities and counties to reduce the overall spread of the virus to acceptable levels. Schools cannot open until that happens. The state standards for reopening schools need to include safety practices such as cleaning, social distancing and grouping students in small cohorts, a robust, state-funded system of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing at schools, as well as guidelines for instruction, and protecting employees.

    Once lower community spread of the virus is achieved and standards for health practices, instruction and employee protection are met, schools should open — and then we must work hard to keep them open even if it means curtailing other activities.

    Regular coronavirus testing regimens in schools will provide early identification of infection even in students and staff who do not exhibit symptoms. It will also help health authorities isolate individuals with the virus so it does not spread further.

    Longer term, this school-based health system will be useful when the time comes to help vaccinate children for COVID-19 at school, as was done with the polio vaccine during the polio epidemic in the 1950s. Post-COVID-19, an investment in school-based health systems could be a gift that keeps giving in high-needs communities. Children could even be provided with regular physicals as well as dental, hearing and vision exams. All at a place families trust and students attend almost every day.

    Principals, teachers and school staff are making heroic efforts to keep students connected with school and help them continue to learn. But for many students, online learning pales in comparison to the education they receive at a school. And for some, the time away from a classroom will have a lifetime of consequences. We cannot prioritize a day at the mall over a lifetime of opportunity for a child.

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  • How we can get kids back to school safely during the pandemic - Los Angeles Times

    Posted by LA Unified on 8/16/2020

    Published in the Los Angeles Times

    By Austin Beutner

    Tuesday is the first day of school for nearly 700,000 students in Los Angeles Unified. Not one of them will be in a classroom.

    They need to be, for both educational and social reasons. But the question is how to get students back to school safely. Health practices — spreading desks apart, wearing masks, washing hands, using electrostatic cleaning and upgrading HVAC systems — are crucial, but they won’t be enough.

    That’s why Los Angeles Unified is launching a new effort that, with the support of three universities, a technology giant, innovative testing providers and health insurers, will provide a robust system of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing to serve all in the school community.

    The testing and contact tracing program brings together the expertise of UCLA, Stanford and Johns Hopkins University. Microsoft is providing an application to help manage the effort and share information. Testing labs will provide timely results at a cost that makes the effort feasible. And health insurers Anthem Blue Cross and HealthNet will share their data to provide a more robust overall picture of how the novel coronavirus affects different communities.
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    The spread of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles area still exceeds the guidelines from the state of California setting out when it might be safe for students to return to school campuses. Any decision is some time away, which gives us time to build the program in a measured fashion.

    We are currently fine-tuning systems and operational logistics. Then we will begin providing tests to staff currently working at schools as well as to any of their children participating in child care provided for Los Angeles Unified staff.

    Tests will then be provided for all staff and students over a period of weeks to establish a baseline. On an ongoing basis, sample testing based on epidemiological models will be done for each cohort of staff and students.

    Testing will also be provided to family members of students and staff who test positive for the coronavirus and family members who show symptoms. In the event of a positive test, contact can be made with others in the school community, including family members, to quickly isolate the virus.

    The goal is to get students back to school as soon as possible while protecting the health and safety of all in the school community. And it will help keep them there if an isolated outbreak were to occur.

    We expect the effort to also help point the way for COVID-19 workplace standards generally. A recent survey of our employees found that 88% felt a robust system of testing and contact tracing at schools would make them safer.

    An effort like this is not simple and the scale is daunting. We expect the pilot program will encounter difficulties, some of which we can anticipate and others we cannot. Test results might be late, students or staff might be absent on the day of testing at a school, contact tracing efforts might not reach every family. But if it works, it can be a model for other school districts and communities across the country.

    Schools, especially those in urban areas, are the front lines for dealing with societal issues — from poverty and childhood hunger to mental health and racial inequality. COVID-19 has exacerbated all of those and added new challenges. The virus is having a disproportionate impact on the families in our schools, 80% of whom live in poverty.

    Since school facilities closed last spring, scientists have learned a lot more about the virus. It’s more contagious than they initially thought. People without symptoms can transmit the virus. Children can carry and spread the virus. And we know that reopening schools will significantly increase interaction between children and adults from different families and different generations.

    Testing and contact tracing will cost money. We expect the effort in Los Angeles Unified to cost about $300 per student over the course of a year. But that is a small fraction of the $17,000 Californians invest each year to educate a student, and the dollars pale in comparison to the importance schools will play in reopening the world’s fifth-largest economy.

    But this is really about something that can’t be measured in dollars and cents; it’s about creating opportunity for children. A good education is the path out of poverty for many students and the promise of a better future for all of them.

    The opportunity to use testing to get ahead of the virus was missed in January and again in May due to a lack of capacity. Families in California and across the country are now looking at weeks or even months more of shutdown to reduce the overall level of the virus so communities and schools can reopen.

    This time we must be ready with testing and contact tracing.

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  • COVID-19’s impact on schools shows California’s need to connect students to internet - Sacramento Bee

    Posted by LA Unified on 6/1/2020

    Published in the Sacremento Bee

    How rural school districts are attempting distance learning with low-speed internet

    By Austin Beutner

    Even in the best of times, launching a statewide online learning program would be a monumental task, akin to landing on the moon. Trying to do this in the middle of a pandemic has resulted in outcomes that are, putting it mildly, uneven and unequal – leaving hundreds of thousands of students without access to the public education they need to realize their potential.

    But public-private partnerships like one pioneered between Los Angeles Unified School District and Verizon may hold the key to bridging the digital divide by connecting every public school student in California to the internet – a lifeline today during school closures, but also the foundation for future opportunity in an increasingly digital economy. Based on an agreement with Los Angeles Unified, Verizon will offer to any school district in the state a significantly reduced price for wireless internet access so students can stay connected to learning.

    There are about 6.2 million students in public schools across California and about 1.2 million – or nearly 20 percent – do not have access to the internet at home, either because of geography or the inability to afford it.

    I grew up in an era when we were all connected – everyone had a landline phone and the same ten-cent postage stamp carried thoughts anywhere in the country. That sense of connection and equity was lost in the transition to a wireless world, but we’re committed to ensuring that all of our students and employees remain a part of their school community. Out of crisis, we can create opportunity.

    Part of this is to make sure every student has a digital device and internet access to stay connected with their school community and continue learning.

    Connecting everyone is just the beginning. In Los Angeles Unified, we’re training educators and helping students master the tools and technologies and all are beginning to see the opportunities they can provide. And we’re working with the innovators that made California the world’s fifth-largest economy to develop content that engages students in new, uniquely digital ways.

    This summer, for example, Los Angeles Unified students will be offered an unprecedented opportunity. A great set of partners are working together with educators to offer entertaining online classes which will tie in math, literacy and critical thinking skills.

    Working together with Illumination, the creators of “Despicable Me,” and James Cameron, the award-winning director of “Titanic,” we will help students learn to draw, create animation and share their own stories and to learn about the biology and physics of the deep ocean and underwater exploration on a special voyage of the Titanic. And Fender Guitars is helping to provide the opportunity for 1,500 students to learn to play the guitar or ukulele.

    In all of these classes, students will be provided, at no cost, the materials they need to participate.

    This extraordinary effort needs to continue as we transition back to schools. That will require funding for schools to provide the technology and access. But it won’t require a moonshot.

    The devices, laptops or tablets, cost $300 apiece and last about three years. Internet access, appropriately discounted, should be about $10 a month per student. Add it all up and the annual cost would be about $600-$700 million to make sure every student across the state is connected to the internet and their school community. That may sound like a great deal of money, but last year the State of California invested in excess of $84 billion in K-12 education.

    The effort can be funded based on the same model used to pay for access in landline phones or the same logic used to make sure a letter to Alaska costs the same as it does to send it across town. Californians spend an estimated $100 billion on phone bills and internet access and more than that on cloud services. A very small portion of those bills would provide the funds to pay for an effort to keep students connected students with the future.

    The investment in the digital future of all students will help make sure there’s opportunity to match the talent we know is in every student in every classroom, whether at school or at home. It’s time we find a way to do extraordinary things to make sure we deliver on the promise of a great education for every child in public schools.

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