The second-largest public school district in the United States is in turmoil. Los Angeles Unified School District, with over 600,000 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade at over 1,000 schools, may not be open for the business of teaching on August 18. How to handle the COVID-19 pandemic is the issue, and there is nowhere near a consensus on how to handle it.
The union representing LAUSD teachers is the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which has recently put out a lengthy document outlining what they believe are “Safe and Equitable Conditions for Starting LAUSD in 2020-21.” It’s a doozy.
Laced throughout the document are references to the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has on “people of color.” The document leads off with a section entitled “The Same Storm, But Different Boats,” making the case that LAUSD’s student population is disadvantaged compared to the general population. They are more likely to live in higher-density housing, more likely to live in multi-generational households, more likely to live further away from medical care, more likely to use mass transit, etc., etc. Their point: All of this “structural racism” means that compared to other school districts in California, more will have to be done before LAUSD can open.
The problem with this litany is it predates COVID-19 and ignores a crucial question: Are disadvantaged communities going to be better off or worse off if schools don’t reopen? If it is impossible to meet all of the conditions that might be necessary to ensure that schools in low-income communities eliminate all these extra risks and disadvantages, then what?
UTLA Conditions to Reopen Go Well Beyond Medical Concerns
According to the UTLA, the “total additional expenses to restart physical schools could be nearly $250 million.” Moreover, this sum of money, monstrous as it is, will “not take into account measures to address the increased need for mental health and social services, the educational needs of children who may have fallen behind in the shift to crisis distance learning, regular testing of students and staff, or the long-term effects on students that will need to be addressed over multiple years. Finally, these costs do not include investments into distance learning, which will continue to be provided, either to all students under a full distance learning.”
So UTLA is looking for somewhere between a quarter-billion and a half-billion dollars before they’ll agree to reopening schools. And to be clear – LAUSD was in serious financial trouble before COVID-19 came along. To recap:
- In exchange for 180 days of classroom instruction per year, the average LAUSD teacher makes over $100K per year in pay and benefits (grossly understated estimate because it doesn’t take into account paying down their unfunded pension and retirement health care liabilities).
- The “modest” strike settlement negotiated between LAUSD and UTLA in early 2019 left LAUSD in worse financial shape than before.
- Taking all expenditures into account, California spends, on average, over $20,000 per K-12 pupil per year. There is not a revenue problem, there is a spending problem.
- An under-reported reason the teachers unions want to unionize – or abolish – charter schools is because they need to fold more pupil counts, and hence more revenue, into their annual budgets. Only in this way can they hope to spread their existing pension debt over a larger revenue base.
So where will $250 million (or more) come from?
At the federal level, the UTLA is calling for federal assistance including an emergency bailout, along with increased Title I funding, increased Individuals With Disabilities Education funding, and “Medicare for All.”
At the state level, UTLA is calling for passage of the proposed property tax increase that is already on the November ballot, along with a “Wealth Tax” of 1 percent a year, and a “Millionaire Tax” of up to 3 percent surtax on high-income Californians.
And at the local level, UTLA wants to “Defund Police,” provide free housing to anyone, ten additional sick days for all private employees, a moratorium on charter schools, and “financial support for undocumented students and families.”
None of this political agenda is new, apart perhaps from “defund the police.” Even UTLA admits this in their conclusion, which leads off with “Normal Wasn’t Working For Us Before.” Perhaps on that, everyone can agree. LAUSD was failing to deliver educational outcomes for its students that they deserve. LAUSD was in financial trouble. And the student population of LAUSD had a higher than average percentage of students from low-income families. But we didn’t shut down the schools.
The Medical Debate is All That Matters Right Now
Almost lost in UTLA’s position on reopening the LAUSD schools, given their ongoing fixation on race, class, and every other perceptible category of disadvantage, is the medical debate. But here again, just as with the political and financial conditions they’ve set for reopening schools, what they’re asking for is impossible to achieve. Some are tougher than others.
For example, UTLA is asking for “drastically reduced class sizes to no more than 12 per classroom.” They are asking for personal protective equipment for all staff and students, presumably to mandate that everyone including students wear masks. If you read the entire list of steps UTLA considers necessary in order to open schools (pages 7, 8, and half of page 9), it is clear that what they are asking for cannot be achieved without – and they’re being forthright about this – an infusion of over $250 million for this school year, with no end in sight. Is this necessary?
Here is where, with tragic and ongoing consequences, political priorities have distorted the public health debate over how to handle COVID-19. From the start, the priority has been to lock down the healthy, instead of quarantining the vulnerable. And from the start, any information that might point to inexpensive therapies has been suppressed.
Here is a partial list of mitigating factors that ought to be included in the discussion of school openings:
- The number of pre-adolescent children who have become sick with COVID-19 is statistically negligible.
- Children also do not appear to spread COVID-19.
- Older children can catch COVID-19 but the rate of cases that either are fatal or leave serious long-term damage is statistically negligible.
- Healthy teachers can take several measures to protect themselves from possible exposure to infection, including the approved methods – face shields, masks, frequent hand washing, social distancing.
- Teachers with health conditions or in at-risk age groups should consider taking a leave of absence or retiring.
- Preventive steps can be taken including getting an updated Rubella vaccine, taking 400 mg per week of hydroxychloroquine, taking zinc lozenges, getting at least 8 minutes per day of exposure to full sun or taking vitamin D3, taking Pepcid, and taking chewable vitamin C.
These preventative measures may not all be valid. But there is strong evidence that some of them are valid. They have been unfairly dismissed.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared on the website California Globe.