Schools in Los Angeles and San Francisco reopen but classrooms are nearly empty

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When Siniya Longino arrived for her first day of eighth grade in person in San Francisco last week, there was only one other student in the class. Everyone was far away, like all of his teachers. Siniya logs into Zoom on her laptop from her desk to see them.

“Personally, I would have preferred to stay at home,” Siniya said. “I just feel like it’s no use.”

In San Francisco and Los Angeles, tens of thousands of middle and high school students returned to class last week for what some parents call “Zoom into a Room.” The unusual model, in which students sit at desks with laptops and learn remotely while an adult supervises them, is the latest twist in the slow reopening of public schools here in the country’s most populous state. .

Although it currently has the lowest per capita Covid-19 rate of any state, California has the highest percentage of school districts still fully virtual, at nearly 13%, according to the Return to Learn tracker of the American Enterprise Institute. The national rate is 4%.

A large school district in California, Santa Ana, is not opening at all this school year. And while many students across the country use computers at least some of the time, the “Zoom in to a Room” format in Los Angeles and San Francisco is not common, according to education researchers.

High school students in most countries can receive in-person instruction at least part of the time.

Los Angeles and San Francisco announced their plans to reopen in March after months of negotiations between city school boards and teacher unions, in which Southern California suffered one of the worst waves of Covid- 19 of the country. They said middle and high school students returning to school should continue to study online as it would not be possible to keep them in the cohorts needed to track Covid-19 transmissions if they moved to another room and fell apart. mixed for the different classes they follow. during the day.

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The Los Angeles Unified School District, with approximately 550,000 students, is second in size to New York City, and it enabled K-6 students to begin part-time in-person learning last month. . Older children have been allowed to take their online lessons in schools from last week. According to surveys conducted by the district, about 47% of primary school students were due to return, 34% of middle school students and 24% of secondary school students.

The San Francisco School District has about 57,000 students and has brought in students on a similar schedule. The main difference is that only around 7.5% of middle and high school students had to return to schools for e-learning. They include children with special educational needs, English language learners, recent immigrants and homeless students. Others must continue to do their online learning at home.

A year after the start of the pandemic, many schools are only partially open for fear they could fuel the spread of the coronavirus. Experts explain what are the real risks of the spread of Covid-19 in schools. Illustration: Preston Jessee for The Wall Street Journal

Some elementary school students in the city also “Zoom into a Room” in cases where there are not enough teachers who have returned to class.

Supryia Ray is one of many parents in San Francisco upset that their children are among the last in the country not to be able to return to school.

She has been helping her two children learn remotely for a year and says keeping her second-year daughter on track has been a battle, while her sixth-grader has struggled to make friends. “I have to say it was incredibly difficult,” Ms. Ray said. “There are so many things [the school district] could have done that would have been much better.

While political leaders in some states have ordered schools to reopen, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Democratic-controlled legislature have failed to reinstate in-person learning requirements they waived last summer. Mr Newsom said all schools in California are expected to reopen at the start of the next school year, but he has not asked for a warrant for them to do so.

A spokeswoman said the Democrat “has prioritized the country’s best security supports for schools to reassure families and staff.”

Patricia Francisco teaches an online class from her standing desk in a Panorama High School classroom.

One of the likely reasons California has fewer in-person learning requirements than other states is that teacher unions are influential in Sacramento, said Mike Kirst, former chairman of the Board of Education of the ‘State. They negotiated hard over the conditions under which they would return to school in many cities in California and demanded that teachers be allowed to use medical exemptions to continue working from home.

Some teachers worry about catching or spreading Covid-19 or whether schools are safe and healthy for themselves and for students, said Susan Solomon, president of United Educators of San Francisco.

“The inequalities that we know have existed long before the pandemic and that many people, organizations, unions, parents and school boards are trying to address have been exacerbated during the pandemic,” said Ms. Solomon.

Elizabeth Galindo, who lives in the Mission District of San Francisco, said going back to physical classrooms was a relief. The 17-year-old Honduran immigrant has spent most of the pandemic in a studio, helping her three elementary-aged siblings zoom in their classrooms while their mother works in a restaurant.

“I had to be completely mindful of everything they had to do, as well as what I was doing,” Elizabeth said.

In Los Angeles, many teens allowed to return to school have not done so because, they say, they are afraid of Covid-19 or see no point in leaving home to learn online. ‘school. At Panorama High School in the northern San Fernando Valley, the halls were nearly empty on Wednesday. Of the school’s 1,330 students, 260 had chosen to return in person, and only half of them are on campus at any given time.

In Joseph Roman Torres’ classroom, three ninth grade students sat in separate corners of the room with masks on. Mr. Torres was standing in the fourth corner, his laptop on a filing cabinet. He was teaching a class online while students attended different classes, listening through headphones. His only sustained interactions with adolescents were during two periods where he worked with them on life skills, including mindfulness.

“For decades we have divided students into groups in our classroom,” Torres said of the setup. “So it’s no different.”

Of Panorama’s 1,330 students, 260 have chosen to return in person, and only half of them are on campus at any time.

Caleb Herrera, 15, said he was delighted to be back, despite the limitations. It was quieter than working at home, where he shared a space during the day with his mother and two brothers. And he was delighted to see at least a few classmates.

On Zoom, he doesn’t even know what all of his classmates look like, as most kids keep their cameras off for privacy or to use less bandwidth.

Several teachers and administrators have pointed out that school Wi-Fi is reliable – another benefit to come in person.

Alexander Yanez, 14, said he spent most of the pandemic studying alone in his bedroom.

Even the small social interactions at school are an exciting change. During breakfast he said, “I sat down next to someone, and he just started talking to me. It was new. My expectations were exceeded.

Write to Alejandro Lazo at [email protected] and Ian Lovett at [email protected]

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