Southern California parents demonstrate for sooner school reopening

Members of California Policy Center's Parent Union and school choice advocates rally outside UTLA headquarters in Los Angeles to demand they support the opening of all schools on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

Protesters target union that wants to keep schools closed until pandemic slows further.

Dozens of parents rallied outside the headquarters for United Teachers Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 19, to demand the union representing 35,000 teachers in L.A. Unified switch positions and support reopening campuses for those students who want to attend.

By about 5:30 p.m., more than 65 people, many from Orange County, gathered in front of the UTLA Plaza near Wilshire Center holding signs and chanting.

The demonstration, organized by California Policy Center’s Parent Union, a pro-charter school group, followed a similar rally in Santa Ana earlier this month targeting the teachers union there.

Although the state health department will not allow schools in L.A. County — and other counties on the state monitoring list — to reopen, the demonstrators and many other parents throughout Southern California see unions to blame for campuses still remaining closed.

In July, when it was still unclear whether campuses would reopen in the fall, UTLA called for classes to be 100% online. A representative for the union said on Tuesday that classes cannot physically reopen until science and health experts say it is safe to do so.

“Calling for school campuses to reopen now, as daily infection rates increase at an alarming rate in LA County and California, is unfair to the thousands of families and educators who are trying to make remote learning work in order to prioritize the health, safety and well-being of our school communities,” a statement from the union said. “Of course educators want to be back with our students in person more than anything, but we cannot risk the lives of our students, educators and families to do so.”

Joining demonstrators on Wednesday at UTLA was Mari Barke, a trustee on the Orange County Board of Education, which sparked outcry when in July it voted 4-to-1 in support of campuses reopening with safety precautions but without a recommendation to wear face masks.

“Not that everybody wants to go back to school, but I think they would like to have that choice if they want to,” Barke said during an interview Tuesday. “I’m not against sanitation and social distancing. Masking makes sense for some and not others. I think it’s quite challenging to impose a mask on a young child.”

Barke said she and others are guided by science that shows nobody under the age of 18 in Los Angeles or Orange counties have died from the disease. The most affected by deaths were older people with pre-existing conditions. Young people under 18 continue to make up roughly 1% of those hospitalized for COVID-19.

“As studies show, the younger children are really not the ones vulnerable to the disease,” Barke said. “It’s not like the flu that really goes after our kids. Our kids seem to be protected.”

Distance learning classes began this week at L.A. Unified as the debate raged on whether it was now safe to reopen campuses or not. At the current moment, county infection rates were roughly three times levels required to reopen high schools and 1.5 times higher than levels set for grade schools to apply for a waiver.

Opinions among parents are widely mixed, however, based on a sampling of surveys contrasted by race and income levels. A majority of parents in wealthier neighborhoods such as Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes support reopening when it’s safe, while an unscientific survey of LAUSD parents — where roughly 80% of students live below the poverty level — showed a majority wanted students to remain at home.

This difference in opinions among parents is reflective in the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on communities of color and lower incomes. During the peak of cases in July, rates of hospitalizations among Latinos were nearly four times that of white residents — and death rates were roughly six times higher. Now, death rates among Latinos are roughly 2.5 times higher than white residents, public health officials reported Wednesday.

Black residents, meanwhile, had roughly two-to-three times higher rates of hospitalization than white residents and three times higher death rates during the peak of the pandemic in July. Now, the death rate is only slightly higher compared to whites. On Wednesday, public health officials said while things were improving these disparities remained.

Similar inequities exist when comparing wealth. Those in the highest poverty areas die at rates about four times that of people living in the wealthiest areas, based on data presented by the L.A. County health officials last week.

In an unscientific study of 430 LAUSD parents by the advocacy group Speak UP, the vast majority of respondents said they would rather deal with the difficulties of at-home learning than potentially expose their family to infection.

Distance learning has presented a whole host of challenges though, from log-on issues and other technical difficulties to just adapting to learning through a computer screen rather than a teacher in person. Cristina Sanchez, a parent of an LAUSD 8th grader, said she worries that the education her child receives this year will not be sufficient.

“I don’t understand how LAUSD can help our children to make up for the time that they lost and face the challenges of this school year by deciding to make the school day shorter and cutting the instructional time they get with their teachers in half,” Sanchez said. “My child deserves to get more than half an education.”

Based on distance learning schedules, students will attend class from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. with up to 150 minutes of live synchronous instruction on most days.

At the time LAUSD forged an agreement with UTLA on distance learning earlier this month, Superintendent Austin Beutner and UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz put out a joint statement saying they were building off the experiences in the spring.

“We have all learned from our experiences with distance learning since March and we’ve applied what we learned to this agreement,” they stated on Aug. 3. “Our shared goal is to provide the best possible education for students in our schools.”

For parents such as Barry Yudess in Rancho Palos Verdes, the question of whether campuses should reopen came down to weighing the very real effects that isolation and distance learning is having on students. Yudess is a parent of a rising sophomore at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in a school district where roughly 75% of parents in a recent survey said they wanted students to return to in-person classes.

“I think in five or 10 years when you start to do the analysis, the conclusion will be we screwed up,” Yudess said. “We could have done this differently. Look at the damage we’ve done to our kids.”

In Redondo Beach, where only 6% of parents during a recent survey chose a 100% online learning model when schools reopen, Superintendent Steven Keller acknowledged this week that the district would need to work together during this challenging time.

“I have spoken with staff members and parents who feel isolated, disconnected, emotionally exhausted, various levels of anxiety, and have job security worry,” Keller wrote in a letter to parents last week. “This pandemic is real and some of our staff members and families are struggling. We have to care for ourselves and one another.”

(LA Daily News).

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