Most schools in California will not be reopening for in-person education this month – but one superintendent in the Los Angeles area has come up with a plan to welcome some students back to class. And it doesn’t involve their teachers.
On August 19, when Glendale Unified School District kicks off the academic year, 20 of the district’s elementary schools will open some empty classrooms for remote learning.
But instead of the traditional 24 students per classroom, there will be no more than 12. School officials are calling the group a “technology pod,” which will be supervised by a single substitute teacher or district staffer.
The staffers won’t be teaching the students – they will instead be present to offer computer technical assistance, monitor students’ mask use, enforce social distancing and keep students focused on their work.
Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said she came up with the idea after noticing that many young children of essential workers didn’t have proper childcare when schools were forced to pivot to remote learning in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We learned very early and during the pandemic that our parents who are essential workers, parents who could not work from home or parents who had multiple kids, had a dire need for childcare,” Ekchian told CNN.
“And the reality was when we changed to remote learning, there wasn’t a place for them to drop off their kids. So this at the elementary level is really an opportunity for childcare, for our parents who can’t stay home with their kids and need a safe place where their students can continue to learn while they’re away working or looking for a job.”
This week, about 1,000 of the 13,000 grade schoolers in the district will head to classrooms, she said.
How the idea came to life
Glendale is in Los Angeles County, where the Department of Public Health said earlier this month that it would not consider any applications for waivers enabling elementary schools to reopen, citing high local Covid-19 case rates.
“We know that to many families, this is a disappointing announcement, but it’s based on the existing science and data that is guiding all of our decision-making,” Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said in a news release on August 4. “We need to ensure the health and safety of our children, school teachers and staff and all of their families.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District and Glendale Unified School District must comply with LA County rules.
However, because there is no formal learning going on in the classrooms, the Glendale Unified School District is merely providing childcare, which is permitted by the county.
Ekchian, who has lived in Glendale for 20 years, feels it’s her duty to give the community what it needs most during this public health crisis.
“I can’t be in a hospital helping a patient,” she told CNN, “but I can be at a school site helping a student. And that is my definition of being an essential worker in this capacity.”
More than half – 52% – of students at Glendale Unified get free or subsidized meals, she said.
“So we have the trauma of Covid added to everything else that already existed in many of our homes,” Ekchian said. “And it’s our responsibility as public servants to help.”
In addition, many of the students come from homes where parents speak one of 50 different languages. Ekchian, who was tapped as superintendent in May 2019, became the first woman and the first Armenian American to head the district, which has the nation’s largest population of Armenians.
“All students don’t have parents who speak English at home,” Ekchian said, and “may not have parents who are ready to help them with the homework or stay on task. We don’t want the learning gap to be widened over time.”
What the classrooms will look like
When Glendale students return this week, schools – and the classrooms themselves – will look different than they used to.
According to Ekchian, desks will be at least 6 feet apart. Drinking fountains have been turned into hand washing stations. Children will be allowed recess and playtime. But each child will have their own toys and equipment and keep their distance.
Pods will not intermingle, and siblings will be in the same pod. Breakfast and lunch will be brought to the door and distributed by the supervisor.
Students will have a temperature check each morning and answer health questions before entering the school. And if a child does have Covid-19?
“If we felt that it’s in the best interest of the students and adults to shut down for a period of time … then that’s what we would do, but this would not happen in isolation,” she said.
The plan includes contact tracing, along with help with testing and medical consultations. Parents are not being asked to limit their exposure to participate.
“But with it comes a level of expectation that the guidelines are followed so everyone is safe,” Ekchian said.
Many students don’t have access to computers and WiFi, so the district distributed a total of 18,000 devices, Ekchian said.
Each child will have one at home and one at school to limit cross contamination. Some of the funding came from the CARES Act.
A successful pilot program paved the way
As of Tuesday, the coronavirus has infected more than 5.4 million people and killed over 170,000 nationwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The start of the school year has led to educators and parents nationwide clashing over starting in-person classes, and some schools that have reopened have seen new cases. More than 2,000 students, teachers and staff were placed under quarantine in the few reopened districts in several states, according to a CNN tally of reported cases last week.
The White House last week also released eight new recommendations for schools, including ensuring students and staff “understand the symptoms of Covid-19” and requiring “all students, teachers and staff to self-assess their health every morning before coming to school.”
Over the last four weeks, there has been a 90% increase in the number of Covid-19 cases among children in the United States, according to a recent analysis by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association
Still, Ekchian is hopeful about the upcoming school year – especially after the success of the district’s summer pilot program. There were no reported cases of Covid-19 during that time, she said.
In new guidance released last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised face coverings can be worn safely by children over the age of 2, except for rare exceptions. Ekchian said after the pilot program, she isn’t concerned about students not wearing masks.
“We did not have a challenge at all,” she said regarding the enforcement of mask-wearing. “Our students understood from the youngest to the upper elementary, these are the rules of engagement. This is the new normal.”
The superintendent said she has already been contacted by school nationwide about the program.
“I take full responsibility for it, which means if it’s successful we all made it happen,” she said. “If it requires changes, it’s only my fault.”
CNN’s Faith Karimi, Steve Almasy, Dakin Andone, Holly Yan and Madeline Holcombe contributed to this report.