Although coronavirus cases are hitting record highs across the nation, educators in one of the largest public school districts will welcome back its neediest students Monday – fearing that keeping them from the classroom could be causing even greater harm.
Los Angeles Unified School District students who are homeless, growing up in foster care, and those who require special education services will return to campuses next week. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, foster youth and homeless students will have access to meals, help with distance learning and tutoring, thanks to a $1 million plan championed by Superintendent Austin Beutner.
“The best chance to break this cycle of poverty, homelessness and challenges in the foster care system is to provide all the support we can to children now,” Beutner stated in a recent news release explaining the partial reopening. “The needs of these children have been made even greater during this crisis brought about by COVID-19.”
Under guidelines established by the California Department of Education, Los Angeles County schools are now able to bring up to one-fourth of students back to K-12 campuses if they require specialized, in-person services. Previously, under health department waivers, a relatively small number of the youngest learners and high-needs students at other schools in the county had been allowed back to school, but Los Angeles Unified had not worked out a plan yet.
Now, a far greater number of students in the county are eligible to return to school as coronavirus cases are once again on the rise across the county.
On Friday, the county Department of Public Health reported 317,656 coronavirus cases and 7,157 related deaths since the start of the pandemic, with Friday’s 2,108 new infections marking the highest daily total since mid-August.
Many parents and caregivers will welcome the chance to have children get out of the house and back to school. The challenge of educating foster youth and special education students at home during the pandemic has been immense, said Pam Meeker-Stolz, who volunteers with the Alliance of Relative Caregivers. Grandparents and other elderly caregivers have struggled with educational technology and online classrooms at the same time they’ve had to manage children’s stress during lockdowns.
Still, Meeker-Stolz — who takes care of her 15-year-old granddaughter, a Los Angeles Unified student — said the district’s new arrangement allowing some students to return to school is likely to be concerning for many older caregivers who fear their children might bring the virus home with them.
“If one of us goes into a hospital, there’s no one else to take care of these kids,” Meeker-Stolz said. “We’re the backup plan.”
Educational rights advocates have still other concerns. In a recent survey of 300 people conducted by the parent advocacy group Speak UP, roughly 75% of Los Angeles parents whose children have learning disabilities said they are struggling during the pandemic and losing academic skills. Additionally, 36% of parents said they were not receiving all special education services they are owed by the district.
This week, a coalition of 28 advocacy organizations — including the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the ACLU of Southern California and Disability Rights California — issued a joint statement calling on the Los Angeles Unified School District to take immediate action to better serve children with special education needs.
In a Thursday letter addressed to Superintendent Beutner and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the advocates said that students with social and emotional challenges have been unable to learn without one-on-one instruction, a growing concern for parents and caregivers.
“For these students, distance learning is an oxymoron,” the letter reads. The authors called for a prompt response from the district and stated, “we are prepared to seek expedited judicial intervention.”
At an address on Monday, Beutner said that academic performance in the district has suffered, with a rise in the number of middle and high school students who are receiving D and F grades.
Earlier this year, the district reported that from March to May foster youth and homeless students were less likely than their peers to participate in distance learning, and when they did, they were less engaged. During the first three months of the pandemic, for example, just 24% of Los Angeles Unified middle school students who were homeless or in foster care participated “frequently” in online learning — defined as three days or more a week — compared with 47% of their peers.
Many advocates worry that learning gaps between foster youth and their peers are exacerbating educational gaps that were present before the coronavirus. Recent district figures show only 52% of foster youth graduate from high school in four years, compared with 77% for all students. The UCLA Black Male Institute found that Black foster youth are twice as likely to be chronically absent as the average student in Los Angeles County.
Margaret Olmos, director of FosterED California at the National Center for Youth Law, said she welcomes programs that provide services such as tutoring, mental health, meals and Wi-Fi for foster youth. But with coronavirus cases escalating, the possibility of schools having to close again could be especially harmful to students with past trauma.
Still, there appear to be no good solutions for foster youth as the coronavirus continues to tear across the county, state, nation and globe.
“We know that distance learning is the worst thing for these kids,” Olmos said.