Student Well-Being

Anticipating Thousands of Unvaccinated Students, L.A. Expands Virtual Schooling

By Melissa Gomez, Los Angeles Times — February 09, 2022 5 min read
A Los Angeles Unified School District student attends an online class at the Boys & Girls Club of Hollywood in August of 2020.

Anticipating that thousands of Los Angeles Unified students may not be vaccinated when the district mandate kicks in this fall, educators are preparing a significant expansion of online learning options, taking preliminary steps Tuesday to establish up to six new transitional-kindergarten-though-12th-grade virtual schools that could enroll up to 15,000 students.

The move, approved by the Board of Education on Tuesday, acknowledges that the district must prepare to accommodate a potential crush of unvaccinated students who will be barred from entering campuses in fall 2022 as well as families who intend to keep their children in independent study next year. To date, nearly 90% of LAUSD students 12 and older have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have obtained a rare medical exemption. But even that high compliance rate translates to about 20,000 unvaccinated students in the nation’s second-largest school district.

The vote authorizes the district to apply for so-called county-district-school codes from the state, which assigns a unique number to a school for data keeping and other tracking, a number required for all new schools. District officials said they will later decide whether they will need all six online schools, but are aiming to open enrollment in March.

LAUSD Chief of Schools David Baca said that the district surveyed families with students currently enrolled in the City of Angels independent study program, and that 77% of more than 6,200 surveyed indicated they want to continue online next school year, a higher rate than the district anticipated.

Interim Supt. Megan K. Reilly said it was important to expand the district’s remote learning offerings.

“I do think we should still be prepared for a next variant or some other circumstance, and make sure we’re providing the best quality,” Reilly said.

Under the early plan, each online school will have a distinct theme, and officials pledge to look to parents and teachers on how to shape the program. But few other details were discussed with board members, and the creation of the schools will be taken over by incoming Supt. Alberto Caravalho, whose first day as schools chief is Monday.

The new online schools are intended to offer options for families who this year were limited to independent study, providing “a variety of quality online school options” to match students with their interests, a board report said.

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For the current school year, many parents chose independent study out of safety concerns — not wanting to expose their children and other family members to the coronavirus. It’s possible that some of those families will want to remain in remote learning next year, but most of the demand is expected from families not willing to abide by the board’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students.

The school board approved its mandate in September — one of only a handful of school systems in the state to do so — and set a Jan. 10 deadline. Unvaccinated students were to be moved to the district’s independent study program, City of Angels. Even without the forced transfer of unvaccinated students, the program’s enrollment has swelled to about 17,900 students, the largest it’s ever been.

But as the deadline approached, the school board opted to delay enforcement to fall 2022, citing the harms of disrupting learning for so many students — both those being transferred and those remaining behind. The transfers would have further strained the independent study program, which was overwhelmed by an explosion of enrollment at the beginning of fall 2021.

Board member George McKenna, the lone no vote, expressed concern that the expansion of online education could lead to student isolation.

“How do they get to tell stories to each other? How do they grow as children and have laughter? When do they get to tell jokes?” he said. “I don’t know how you find interpersonal relationships are going to grow.”

Board member Scott Schmerelson echoed the concern and asked district staff to prepare extra support for students for their social-emotional health.

A representative of United Teachers Los Angeles expressed reservations about the planning for the virtual schools during public comments.

While an expanded online option is desirable and needed, the district has not provided a plan on how the six online schools would operate, what students would be eligible or who would be prioritized, and how staff would be recruited, UTLA representative Ingrid Gunnell said at the meeting.

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Photograph of a young girl reading, wearing headphones and working at her desk at home with laptop near by.
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“The district has not meaningfully engaged the community’s labor partners or other stakeholders,” Gunnell said. She urged the district to present a clear plan of the program and “show us how this program will be designed with equity in mind to support our most vulnerable students and prioritize those that most need an online option.”

District staff said it would prioritize teachers with reasonable accommodations for the online schools. Other teachers, like at traditional schools, can apply to teach in the virtual program.

The new online schools will probably provide ongoing relief to the traditional City of Angels independent study program, which has long existed and served students with unique schedules, such as student athletes or student actors.

City of Angels enrollment grew to more than 16,000 in a program that typically saw 1,800 students each year. Thousands of parents opted for the remote options at the opening of school during the surge of the delta coronavirus variant and stayed on for the spring term as omicron raged, many fearful that local high coronavirus transmission rates posed safety concerns for their families. But the deluge overwhelmed the program, and many families experienced long wait times to enroll. Students with disabilities faced barriers to accommodations and services required under federal law.

The district projects that each online school will have up to 2,500 students. Each will have a principal, three assistant principals, two academic counselors, and clerical and administrative staff. The total cost of all six schools will be about $16.2 million.

School costs are typically covered by state funding that is generated by enrollment, and the district intends to cover non-teacher staffing and resource costs with federal COVID-19 relief funds for the following two school years, the report states.

It remains to be seen how proposed state legislation that would require all California students be vaccinated against COVID-19 will affect online enrollment. State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) has proposed legislation that aims to add COVID-19 vaccines to the state’s list of required immunizations for children attending K-12 schools, supporting the mandates of LAUSD and other school districts.

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Copyright (c) 2022, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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