LAUSD School Board Member Nick Melvoin was a member of State Senator Ben Allen’s Virtual Town Hall on May 6 at 5:30. He and Allen joined Congressman Ted Lieu and Councilman Mike Bonin to answer questions about public decisions being made in response to Covid-19.
The plan is to have L.A. public schools reopen on August 18. They were closed on March 13, prior to the City enforcing stay-at-home orders in order to “flatten the curve” of people infected with the coronavirus.
“It was a tough decision because 80 percent of our students are living in poverty and a half-million students rely on the district for up to three meals a day,” said Melvoin, who explained how the district went into triage mode after schools were closed. “I like to think of it as the largest food bank in the country.”
The district now hands out two meals a day, breakfast and lunch, not only to students but any family in need that comes to one of 60 Grab and Go centers, including Webster and Marina del Rey middle schools.
“It’s half a million meals a day,” said Melvoin, who noted that adults are served, too, with no questions asked. LAUSD is also serving the homeless at recreation centers, senior centers and at childcare locations.
The second crisis LAUSD faced after closing the schools was instruction. Since all classes now had to be taught online, “we estimated that more than 100,000 students didn’t have a device or connectivity,” Melvoin said.
He said that the district allocated $100 million for chrome books, iPads and hotspots. About 60,000 devices were purchased and distributed, as were 40,000 hot spots (obtaining Internet access, via a wireless local-area network using a router connected to an Internet service provider). “The internet also gives families access to respond to the U.S. Census,” he added.
LAUSD is keeping 78,000 employees on full salary and full benefits through continued state funding.
Melvoin explained that the remainder of the school year will continue with online learning. Teachers can now get a certification for online learning and Melvoin said about half had signed up for the 30-hour “future ready certification” that will prepare them for online.
Regarding the reopening of schools in August, Melvoin said that about 97 percent of students have now internet connection. “Looking into the summer—typically fewer than 10 percent participate in summer school, but in July, it will be available to 100 percent of students online.”
How the district will reopen physically on August 18 is still under exploration. It may involve staggered start times and possibly lowered class sizes, using every other desk. He said questions such as “How will 7- and 8-year-old students maintain social distancing and “Will five year olds keep a mask on?” are still being discussed.
Any reopening will most likely involve personal protective equipment and hand sanitizers. “We hope to have sports return, but without crowds,” Melvoin said.
Melvoin, who worked as a teacher in Watts about 10 years ago, noted that the pandemic has brought to the forefront an existing crisis that the district has been dealing with for a while.
“About 82 percent of students are below the poverty line and 18,000 are homeless,” he said. Since joining the board in 2017, he has wanted the ability to send food home with those students, but “there was a Federal requirement that they eat in groups. Obviously, that has been waived, but when the order is lifted, students should be able to take it home to their families.”
“This crisis has crystalized the idea that access to the internet is not a luxury, but a necessity,” Melvoin said. “I would love to see universal wireless access for the City.”
He also mentioned that the district has properties that have not been utilized for decades and wonders if the district could partner with the City to use those sites for homeless students.
Since the pandemic has destroyed the state’s seemingly ample budget surplus, and since schools are dependent on the state for their funding, Melvoin was asked for his projection.
He pointed out that 40 percent of the people the district is now feeding are adults and “we don’t get reimbursed through the school lunch program.” The district hopes to receive federal reimbursement.
“My North Star is we can’t lay off one teacher and we have to think about the collective trauma [of our students from the pandemic]. We need more counselors, more nurses,” Melvoin said, adding that many schools have health clinics and provide free glasses and free dental clinics.
But the Westside board member worries most about students and the loss of instruction, and how can LAUSD make sure no student is automatically passed on without the proper education.
“We’re eager to get back,” Melvoin said.