Published on August 26th, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein1
Love Letter to the Los Angeles Unified School District
There was a time last summer when Jackie Goldberg of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education called me every day. Her recorded voice relayed variations on the same message: School was definitely, totally happening in the fall. They were working out the details, like whether it would be in person or on Zoom, and they’d get back to us soon. Just…trust them, okay?
I listened to her messages, or didn’t, as I ran a sloppy kind of summer camp for my son Dash and our two next door neighbors between work meetings. They sprawled on the grass in the park and complained of the heat while I answered work emails on my phone. There was so little information from LAUSD that I sometimes wondered if I’d fallen off some key list, the series of calls or emails where they actually told parents what to do and what would be happening. Then, a few days before school was set to start, we learned it would all be remote. So began seven months of kinderzoom. It was alternately ridiculous, joyful, fascinating, frustrating, pointless, and vital, for both Dash and for me. Ultimately, it was fine.
Schools reopened in hybrid mode in April of 2020. LAUSD is a big ship: more than 650,000 kids, more than 80% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Children in other local districts went back sooner, but so nominally that it just added to their parents’ collective pandemic headache. Yes, it was great for kids to get to see their friends (from a distance) for two mornings a week, but someone had to be there to pick them up a few hours after drop-off. LAUSD, on the other hand, went big: five mornings a week, with free after-school care until 4pm.
It still wasn’t enough for the girls next door, whose parents were essential workers and didn’t get home until 6, and so they stayed online, half supervised by their 16-year-old brother. They toggled between assigned screen time and recreational screen time, between the Clever app and YouTube. They ate the pollo and cucumber slices their mom left for them, lovingly tormented their cat, and turned on the air conditioner only when it got very, very hot in their duplex.
And then it was summer of 2021. LAUSD issued another round of vague reassurances: School was totally happening IN PERSON in the fall. This time, as a seasoned first-grade parent, I knew that the specifics would arrive at the last minute. And they did, sure as sunrise.
LAUSD is the second largest school district in the country, and its reputation is mixed at best. A quick search of news headlines that include “LAUSD” brings up phrases like “parents express frustration,” “long lines to get on campus,” and “admits delays with COVID-19 health check system.” Fifty-two percent of Los Angeles residents are white, but less than 11% of LAUSD students are white. That says something about the city’s BIPOC population skewing younger, but I suspect it also says plenty about white and wealthier parents sending their kids to private schools. It says that many parents who have a choice avoid LAUSD.
Early the morning of August 16, I logged into https://pap.lausd.net/en-US/SignIn and pulled up the results of Dash’s COVID test, which he’d taken Saturday at the high school down the street. Tentatively but bravely, he’d swabbed his own nose. The healthcare worker in blue scrubs, booties like clouds around her shoes, called him “little man” and cheered him on behind her face shield. The test was negative. Thank goodness and knock on wood.
Now the system presented a QR code, which I would share at the gate designated for first and second graders.
“I’m excited to see both the Edgars,” Dash said. He’d maintained that Edgar from kinderzoom was different from the Edgar in his ETK class the year before. I assumed it was some kind of psychological effect of the pandemic, a mental bifurcation into Before and After, like the many that haunted my own brain. But I didn’t argue with him.
I helped Dash into his uniform of royal blue polo shirt and navy shorts. In front of the mirror, he meticulously combed his hair flat, and less meticulously brushed his teeth.
In line behind the other parents and kids in their mandatory masks, I was filled with a feeling I often got at school drop-off. In a world whose brokenness consumed headlines and Twitter feeds, something was working. Not perfectly. I knew enough teachers and administrators to say confidently that, behind the scenes, shit shows abounded. But recovering from the perfectionism that has plagued me since childhood requires that I look around and see what’s working.
And here, on this bright morning in late summer beneath the shade of old sycamore trees and the shade of hastily erected canopies over the check-in tables, administrators greeted families warmly. Parents took photos through the chain link fence. Toddlers crunched up the leafy slope to say goodbye to their older brothers and sisters. Dash’s kindergarten teacher gave foot fives to her newly minted first graders.
Every day, the school district would send kids home with enough food for dinner and for breakfast the next morning. If something called “hula cooler slush” got labeled a fruit, and “taco snacks” that were actually burritos made with American cheese arrived in ample plastic packaging, well, 650,000 children were eating three meals a day. Those meals are at least as healthy as the boxed mac n cheese and Nutrigrain bars that are on heavy rotation in our house.
I work for a nonprofit organization that provides supplemental programming to Title I schools in LAUSD. Our mission is born from the reality that schools don’t have what they need to educate kids, and that resources are not allocated equitably in our society. But we’re careful in our publicity materials not to refer to schools as “broken” or “failing”—though that language is out there, and I’ve even heard it muttered by our own former board members. But they’re not failing. I would argue that late-stage capitalism is failing, a snowball gathering alarming speed, and schools are doing their best to pick up the slack. (Notably, schools are one of the few mostly-accepted forms of socialism in the U.S., along with fire departments and national parks.)
Because of LAUSD’s in-school weekly COVID testing, I could send my partner, Dash, and the neighbors to see Paw Patrol over the weekend with reasonable confidence that any unvaccinated school-age child in the movie theater would have had a clear COVID test no more than three days ago. There’s not much I feel confident about when it comes to Paw Patrol, so again, I have to thank LAUSD for being a real-life Mayor Goodway.
I assume that, at some point this year, Dash’s class will have to quarantine due to an outbreak. I hope he’s not patient zero in such a scenario, or a patient at all, but who knows. Asking schools to solve a pandemic is like asking them to solve poverty. We demand both. And damn, schools fight the good fight. Dosage matters. Harm reduction matters. If Dash gets as much in-person school this year as he got online school last year, it will be a win.
Dash arrived home happy and excited after the first day, his hair big and floppy again. “Mrs. Sandoval is really nice,” he reported.
He compared notes with the neighbors in an impromptu driveway reunion.
“I made a birdhouse!” shouted Juanita, back from her first day of TK. She held up a balsa wood structure splashed with neon paint.
“I made friends!” said her often-sullen third grade sister.
Dash said, “Both the Edgars are in my class. Edgar T. and Edgar P.”
Later that night, I dug up an old ETK class picture. Sure enough, that Edgar did not match the one who’d entered our dining room every day on Zoom. My kid was right. The kids are alright.