Ds and Fs surge, attendance slips among L.A.’s poorest students amid distance learning

Sports medicine teacher Arlene Alpuerto interacts virtually with students at Eagle Rock Jr./Sr. High School

EAGLE ROCK, CA - AUGUST 21: Los Angeles Unified School District Eagle Rock Jr./Sr. High School sports medicine class teacher Arlene Alpuerto interacts virtually with students as they participate in the sports medicine class on the second day of school in LAUSD. Los Angeles on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020 in Eagle Rock, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
Sports medicine teacher Arlene Alpuerto interacts virtually with students at Eagle Rock Jr./Sr. High School in Los Angeles. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Grades of D and F have increased in the Los Angeles Unified School District among middle and high school students in a troubling sign of the toll that distance learning — and the coronavirus crisis — is taking on the children, especially those who are members of low-income families.

The district released a chart Monday indicating that based on 10-week interim assessments, failing grades are increasing across the board, but are surging the most in lower-income communities. Compounding the disturbing trend, students in these same communities, hard hit by the spread of COVID-19, have the lowest attendance.

“The attendance figures and interim assessments don’t reflect the desire or capability of students,” said L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner in remarks recorded for broadcast Monday. “They’re eager to learn and every bit as capable as they were before school facilities closed. But the struggle to cope with COVID-19 and online learning for children and their families is very real.”

The data on grades made another announcement all the more painful, even though school board leaders foreshadowed it last week: Campuses will not reopen for most students before January, the superintendent said. And even that timing could prove doubtful, Beutner said, unless the coronavirus pandemic subsides and unless the state and local agencies offer more guidance and resources.

In the meantime, the district is expanding attempts to reach more students in person, providing instruction for groups of up to three students at a time. All participants, including teachers, will have to take a coronavirus test, even if they’ve had one recently. This gradual growth of in-person services is expected to reach several thousand of the district’s 460,000 K-12 students.

The district also will be speeding up the in-person assessment of students with special needs and will allow sports teams to begin conditioning work — outside with physical distancing and no team drills.

The next two months need to be spent in an all-out effort to get ready for a hoped-for January opening, Beutner said in an interview with The Times and in his broadcast remarks. As part of that effort, Beutner said that L.A. Unified is part of a coalition of seven California school districts calling for “a common standard of health, education and employee practices so schools have a clear path to open in the safest way.”

Some state legislators expressed overlapping concerns in a legislative hearing last week, directing their comments to the governor’s office and state agencies, including the state Department of Public Health.

“Guidelines are great, but protocols are better,” said Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) in an interview.

State officials last week could not tell the Assembly education committee which California schools have reopened or have had outbreaks of COVID-19 — let alone factors that would have contributed to an infection in a school community.

Speaking separately, both O’Donnell and Beutner said such data should be collected and analyzed.

“We should learn from the data that’s collected,” O’Donnell said. Beutner called the failure to collect such data “reckless” and pointed to ongoing efforts by L.A. Unified to tally and post its own testing data.

A report from the state’s Legislative Analyst said various state and county agencies are providing sometimes conflicting guidance to schools on how best to keep campuses safe.

State COVID rules stipulate that Los Angeles County cannot open public and private K-12 campuses to all students because coronavirus infection rates are too high. In contrast, campuses in Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties, where infection rates are lower, are cleared to reopen, and some districts have. As in L.A. County, campuses in San Bernardino County cannot open. In Riverside County, campuses also must remain closed unless they were able to open before a recent spike of COVID cases in that county.

“First things first,” said Beutner. “The overall level of COVID in this community has to be at a safer level… There’s nobody more frustrated by this than I.”

The situation with student grades embodies this frustration.

“It’s not their fault, their families’ fault or the teacher’s fault,” he added. “The students need to be in a school, where they can learn best.”

In the spring, L.A. Unified joined some other California districts in giving students a passing grade in all their classes. And no grade was lowered after campuses shut down on March 13. Since then, L.A. Unified has worked to make online learning universally accessible, to provide a consistent course schedule and to create more engaging online lessons. L.A. teachers have taken multiple training sessions in online instruction, while also modifying lesson plans and courses.

And grading has resumed.

“Extraordinary things are happening in classrooms,” Beutner said. “But the simple fact is some students are struggling online.”

Even some significant accomplishments have been tempered by reality. The district’s universal access efforts — making computers and internet hot spots available to all students — have been undermined by pockets of inadequate Wi-Fi reception across the county, especially in lower-income areas.

In the “highest-needs communities,” Beutner said in the interview, “the struggle is more difficult. It may be because there’s not a quiet place to work at home. It may be because there’s more trauma in the household — maybe because the disproportionate health impact of this virus is having on communities of color means someone in the household is sick. It may [be] the lack of connectivity… and not because we haven’t provided the connectivity.”

“We’ve heard some of the broadband itself that may not be as strong or the signal may not be as strong in parts of the communities as in others.”

Beutner said he spoke with a dedicated and “heartbroken” middle school teacher who talked about students who are late to class, who turn off screens during a Zoom class, who don’t turn in assignments and of families that don’t return calls.

“He knows most of these students would be doing better in a classroom at school with the structure it provides, the comfort of friends and the focus and routine of his teaching,” Beutner said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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