World Events

First L.A. county public schools reopen amid coronavirus

Learning to share is typically among the first lessons for kindergartners. But not when hundreds arrived on campus Monday, the first public school children in Los Angeles County to return to school amid surging coronavirus infections.

No shared pencils or crayons. No sitting together at tables. No bouncing a ball from one person to another. Use outstretched “airplane arms” to keep distant from classmates.

Yet for all the restrictions they had to navigate, families and officials expressed excitement as their small public school system in the Calabasas area became the first in L.A. County to reopen campuses to transitional kindergarten through second grade under county-approved waivers. About 2,000 students set foot in classrooms for in-person learning 55 days into the school year.

“We’re excited to get started!” Supt. Dan Stepenosky told The Times. His district straddles the L.A. County-Ventura County border but sits mostly within the jurisdiction of L.A. County, so his waivers were granted by that county’s Department of Public Health. “Most parents are over-the-moon excited,” he added.

Liraz Benelisha got a little teary seeing her son off to kindergarten — no non-employee adults are allowed on campus. While happy that he’d finally get to meet classmates in person, she was worried.

“Outside of school, some people are still not wearing masks, still socializing as if nothing is happening,” she said. “I’m trusting others with my son’s health.”

So far, private schools have dominated the waiver application process. While more public school districts are entering the process, waivers either have not been sought or not successfully pursued by the county’s largest school systems. The same is true for many districts that serve the greatest number of students from low-income families.

About 12% of Las Virgenes students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch because of low family income, making the district a more prosperous enclave by L.A. County standards.

As of Monday, the county health department has granted waivers to 74 elementary schools, most of them private schools. The health department in Pasadena has granted five additional waivers, as has the health department in Long Beach. Until a few weeks ago, all schools and districts were required to submit letters of support from employee unions, which proved to be a hurdle.

“This created challenges for many school districts that was not present in the private setting,” said Gina Ward, a spokeswoman for Rowland Unified in the San Gabriel Valley.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, has not applied for reopening waivers but is building an effort to provide one-on-one tutoring and small-group instruction for up to three students at a time for those with special needs. The district recently said about 1,000 students were participating among its 460,000 K-through-12th grade students.

Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified is applying for waivers, but Supt. Alexander Cherniss also would like to see authorization for a more general reopening in parts of L.A. County where infection rates for the coronavirus are comparatively low. Rates at these levels already would have allowed for reopening — were it not for the county’s elevated infection rate as a whole, he noted.

With or without the waiver, Cherniss could almost certainly bring back the youngest students because the county allows for the in-person return of students with special needs — up to 25% of a school’s enrollment. This exemption for special needs could be applied to the youngest students, who are not faring well in distance learning.

Friday evening, Rowland Unified reached an agreement with its teachers association to begin in-person one-on-one assessments for students with disabilities.

“This will be the first step in bringing students back,” Ward said. “Both the union and the district are committed to the safety of all students and staff.”

Las Virgenes moved swiftly to reopen under waivers with the blessing of the local teachers union.

On Monday, children encountered new rules and procedures.

On the way in, students go through two temperature scans: one outside and one just inside the school building. A temperature of 100 degrees or higher means turn around and go home.

Masks are mandatory for all — even the youngest students — except during lunch.

The color of the day is blue and the shape of the day is a circle. Blue dots designate how far apart students have to be in class, on the playground and in eating areas.

In Jennifer Klein’s kindergarten class, all students received their own supplies.

“Why can’t we share them?” she asked her students.

Olivia Johnson raised her hand.

“Because of the corona,” she said without hesitation from behind her white mask, which was set off well by her light pink, sequined high tops.

No class can have more than 12 students, as well as two adults, a teacher and an aide. The morning session lasts from 8:15 to 10:40 a.m. Then there’s a cleaning session before a different afternoon “cohort” attends class from 12:25 to 2:50 p.m.

Cleaning-crew member Terrence Littlefield starts every morning with a new mask, a stack of wipes and hand sanitizer.

“No complaints,” said Littlefield, who’d been on unemployment since July and is happy to be back at work. “Everything we’re doing is necessary to keep everybody safe.”

“We have to get this right,” said Supt. Stepenosky. “We can’t open up and become a super spreader.”

But he’s not too worried: “In reality, students have been training for months,” he said. “Plus, schools aren’t bars or football games. Students know they have to follow the rules.”

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