Los Angeles schools chief doesn’t see a time yet for reopening

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner.

Irfan Khan | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

A day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines encouraging public schools to reopen, the leader of the nation’s second-largest district said there was no timeline for when Los Angeles classrooms would welcome students again.

The opening date for the new school year would have been Aug. 18, but Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner was one of the first public school district leaders to announce distance learning would remain in place as fall approached.

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“It’s an incredibly tough call,” Beutner told “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt on Friday. “Because we understand students need to be in school. Young learners, those learning to read, students learning English, students who might have been struggling before … the best place for them to learn is at school.”

But health and safety come first in the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

“We know there’s a lifetime of consequence if we can’t get students who are learning to read in school now to build that foundation for the rest of their future,” Beutner said.

Keeping students out of classrooms is especially problematic in the LAUSD, where more than 80 percent of the families it serves subsist on poverty-level income and more than half have had a family member lose a job because of the pandemic, he said.

Schools often double as child care in many Los Angeles communities, where the school district has served more than 50 million take-home meals since classrooms closed on March 16, he said.

“We’re trying to do something in public education which has never been done,” Beutner said. “Online learning, historically, has been the province of a very select few.”

The schools chief said it’s too soon to consider reopening around the fall and winter holidays.

“No, no,” he said. “It’s too important.”

While science says it’s rare for children to develop serious complications from the coronavirus, they can still spread it, and some experts say it would be wise to get the virus under control before introducing millions of children to each other anew.

But President Donald Trump, acknowledging the role schools play in freeing parents to work and reignite commerce, has demanded that public schools reopen for the new school year.

He has suggested that some districts have resisted reopening in order to thwart a post-virus economic recovery and thus his reelection.

Beutner said he would like nothing more than to see the district’s more than 633,000 students back in class. Their return has been derailed by new peaks in coronavirus cases, including new daily records set in Los Angeles County in July.

“In May, we’re planning to be back in school,” he said. “June, July, with it going in the wrong direction, the decision, in a sense, made itself.”

Trump has threatened to pull federal funding from districts that don’t reopen.

On Thursday the Los Angeles County Department of Health reported that its seven-day average of positive tests for COVID-19 was 7.4 percent. Beutner said it needs to be below 5 percent for consideration of reopening,

If the numbers “go in the right direction, we’re going to be ready to come back into the schools as soon as we can,” he said.