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Los Angeles Unified reopened its playground equipment on Monday, as did many other school districts and local parks in the city and county. Access will be limited to one class of students at a time and equipment will be sanitized regularly.

Enclosed equipment had been a sore point for many parents, who complained that city and county playgrounds – without coronavirus protection – were accessible, but their children faced unnecessary restrictions on their ability to play, exercise and socialize. They also noted that many other school districts allowed children to use play equipment.

On his weekly Monday show, Supt. Austin Beutner characterized access to playgrounds as the next logical step in a gradual and cautious progression to reopen campuses safely and build confidence in families with ongoing safety concerns. Elementary schools opened for a two-week period starting April 12, and middle and high schools reopened last week.

“We waited until we welcomed the young students again and made sure they knew all the safety protocols – wearing masks, social distancing, hand washing and staying in small cohorts – and we are now at the comfortable that they can take them. practices at the playground, ”Beutner said.

He recognized that the issue was important to the students and their families.

“When I visited schools last week to share this news, there were smiles everywhere,” he said. “The road to recovery includes the opportunity for young people to exercise and play outdoors in a safe and appropriate manner.”

A parent, who requested anonymity to protect their child’s privacy, provided a photo last week to accompany his complaint about physical activity limits, especially in light of the district’s regular testing on students and staff for coronavirus infection.

“This is my first year daughter… sitting on a towel… on cold asphalt for recess,” the parent wrote in an email. “She is not allowed to move from this place or towel. Yet when she leaves her school … she walks into the playground in the nearby park where her life is apparently in danger as she is exposed to countless children without any trace of COVID testing. Which leads me to wonder … If the testing program for LAUSD is so robust, why all the caution? “

Critics of the enclosed playgrounds have included school board member Nick Melvoin, who urged senior officials to make them accessible.

The playing field issue illustrates the complex decisions to reopen the campus facing district officials. Many families fret over security restrictions they deem unnecessary and which have, in fact, cut in half the time students can spend on campus in reopened classrooms. And at the college and high school level, security protocols have resulted in students spending their time on campus in a single classroom with the same small group of students, connecting to core academic classes online – just as they would if they had stayed at home.

Yet even with such protocols, the majority of families in LA Unified continue to keep their children at home, with many citing safety as a fundamental concern.

“Amidst all the progress made in reopening schools, there is a disturbing fact. The proportion of students from low-income families in high-need communities returning to school lags well behind their peers in more affluent communities, ”Beutner said in his released remarks. “The continued absence of so many children from schools will exacerbate the struggle that many already face. If we truly believe in greater pressure for equity in public schools, this is the challenge right now: how to help families understand that it is safe for their child to return to school, and how to grant more time in a classroom when students come back to help them make up for lost time? “

At the elementary level, the district expected about 40% of students to return, but attendance has lagged even among families who have reported returning. For the initial pilot group of 61 elementary schools, around 34% of students were expected, but by the Monday following the reopening, April 19, only 62% of those students were in class. A week later, that number had risen to 74%.

Beutner provided these attendance figures to The Times to highlight the heavy transportation underway to attract students to campus. And for Beutner, that means focusing on the safety of play equipment rather than providing it with immediate and unimpeded access.

Guard staff will use electrostatic foggers and disinfectant to regularly disinfect equipment – the same procedure used to clean frequently touched surfaces indoors. And students will be asked to wash their hands before and after using the equipment.

The district’s coronavirus testing program – which Beutner says is essential for ensuring safety and building confidence – has encountered logistical challenges with the schools reopening. The testing effort had to shift to private contractors rather than school nurses, who returned to traditional tasks. Many already spread their work week over several campuses.

After families submit an initial pretest for students, the district manages weekly testing through mobile clinics that travel from campus to campus. But the entrepreneur, Infiniti Health, simply did not have enough staff to handle the ramp-up, district officials said. As a result, a second contractor was quickly recruited. Beutner declined to name the second company or provide the contracts.

The district also reorganized the leadership of the staff who managed the program.

Officials stressed that parents shouldn’t be alarmed – or requesting tests on their own – if weekly campus tests are falling behind – as has been the case in some places. Their children will not be excluded from campus.

Parents have expressed a variety of opinions about coronavirus testing. For many parents, a less frequent testing schedule is a relief. While others feel less secure as a result.

A teacher at a school in South Los Angeles expressed concern after hearing that on his campus, basic tests would be considered valid for 14 days – rather than a week – and that the test unit mobile would not be coming to his school that week. .

“This means that adults and children who may very well have COVID-19 but who may not be showing symptoms will have full access to our schools at least until next week, when mobile testing sites are supposed to. come to our school, ”said the teacher. , who did not want his name to be used.

The area of ​​this school had a high incidence of COVID-19 and comparatively low vaccination rates.

“I find it extremely irresponsible that our schools open under these conditions,” said the teacher.

The “big picture,” Beutner said, is that LA Unified is successfully leading the nation’s most ambitious school-based testing effort. There is no evidence, he said, of a person-to-person infection on a campus since the reopening.

Playgrounds have been an area of ​​angst and debate for much of the pandemic.

They closed briefly in some areas under a regional stay-at-home order during the deadly winter wave of the pandemic. But the state gave in to the pressure and allowed the playgrounds to reopen in early December.

According to state guidelines updated at the time, “playgrounds can remain open to facilitate physically distant personal health and well-being through outdoor exercise” – an about-face by compared to previously announced rules, which stipulated that they would be closed in areas where intensive care services strained due to COVID-19.

The closure of the playgrounds had triggered particular negative reactions – with parents expressing outrage and confusion over why their children’s play areas would be banned when places such as shopping malls were allowed to remain open with them. limited capacity.

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