The Los Angeles Unified School District will continue to explore offering up to six new online schools to students who can’t or don’t wish to return to in-person learning during the 2022-23 school year, when the district’s COVID-19 student vaccination mandate takes effect.
During their Tuesday, Feb. 8, school board members voted 6-1 to authorize district staff to apply for a state-issued school code – a unique number that every school in California gets assigned for identification purposes – for up to a half-dozen alternative schools that the district is considering launching.
Simply applying for the school codes does not mean L.A. Unified will for sure open all six schools.
But officials are preparing for the possibility that thousands of students will once again opt for online learning next school year – either because they still aren’t comfortable with returning to school in person while the coronavirus continues to circulate widely or because they’ll be barred from campus for failing to comply with the district’s COVID-19 student vaccination mandate.
“The plan is currently to prepare for what we see is an anticipated increase in enrollment based on early surveys from current City of Angels online independent study families. We’re hearing there’s sizable interest in continuing” online, David Baca, the district’s chief of schools, told the school board.
Out of 6,288 City of Angels families who have responded to a survey, 77% have indicated they wish to remain in online learning next year, Baca said.
“We know additionally when the vaccine mandate kicks in … we’ll have a new pool of students that we’ll need to be prepared to serve,” he added.
Nearly 90% of students 12 and older have received their COVID-19 shots, the district said last month. That still leaves potentially thousands who won’t be allowed back on campus if they don’t comply with the mandate by fall semester.
Details to come
The virtual academies would be thematically based so students can select one that best matches their interests.
Each school would serve students in transitional kindergarten through the 12th grade. Based on an enrollment of 2,500 students per school, the district is projecting that each school would cost $2.7 million per year, in addition to one-time start-up costs.
Details such as what the themes would be and how teachers would be assigned to the schools have yet to be determined, though Baca said he had a hunch many of the instructors currently at City of Angels would apply to teach at the new schools.
A representative for the teachers union told the board that while United Teachers Los Angeles recognizes that an online schooling option is necessary for some students, the union is concerned that no clear plan for the schools has been shared with the public, including which students would be eligible or whether any would receive priority enrollment, how students would receive technology and other supports, or how staff would be recruited.
“We have an opportunity to do this the right way, to get the support of UTLA and the community,” union representative Ingrid Gunnell said. “We ask that you meaningfully engage the community, labor partners and other stakeholders.”
The union is calling for a program “designed with equity in mind to support our most vulnerable students and prioritize those that most need an online option,” she said.
District staff said they’re soliciting input from parents and working with labor groups. The district plans to open up enrollment in March and, based on demand, would have a better sense of the staffing needs after that.
Concerns over online schools
Though the majority of the board voted to apply for the school codes and to proceed with planning for the schools, some continued to raise concerns about whether students would be adequately served through online education.
Board member George McKenna, the only one to vote no during the vote, said he wasn’t convinced online schools are a great idea.
“The best learning is person-to-person. … I don’t know how you do interpersonal on Zoom,” saiad McKenna, who questioned how children would develop interpersonal skills if they’re not around others and lamented the idea that they wouldn’t be able to run around and play together in person.
Board member Scott Schmerelson, a retired principal, said that when students come to campus, school staff can spot when something may be wrong, and urged district staff to ensure that social workers will check on students in online schools to ensure their mental and emotional wellbeing are being addressed.
“These kids who don’t mix with anybody, I worry about them – their health, their stability,” Schmerelson said.
Interim Superintendent Megan Reilly said district staff agrees that in-person learning is the best option but that the pandemic forced L.A. Unified to provide other options. She noted that the approximately 17,900 students currently enrolled in City of Angels are there for various reasons, including some who are afraid to return to in-person learning because someone in their household is immunocompromised.
Opening new virtual academies would also allow the district to be prepared in the event pandemic conditions change again.
We should still be prepared for a next variant or some other circumstance and make sure we’re providing the best quality, like we always do, of options for our students,” Reilly said. “That has been one thing that we’ve done in this pandemic – is try to be ahead and prepared for anything or everything that it seems to throw and pivot quickly when needed.”
City of Angels, originally designed to serve students such as child actors, elite athletes or medically vulnerable students staying longterm in hospitals, typically serves 1,800 students but saw its enrollment balloon nearly tenfold this year.
Critics complain that the program was never intended to accommodate such a large load of students and that it’s fallen short of providing a quality education.
One idea behind the new online schools being explored is that they would be more manageable.
Based on a projected enrollment of 2,500 students per school, each school would receive a principal, three assistant principals, two academic counselors, and administrative or clerical staff members, and teachers would receive professional development on delivering online instruction.
The schools would be offered as a choice to students, in addition to City of Angels, which would continue to operate next year.