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As Coronavirus Cases Surge In California, The State Takes A Step Back

NOEL KING, HOST:

California is making two big moves as COVID cases surge there. The two largest school districts, LA and San Diego, will not have kids back in physical classrooms for the foreseeable future. And Governor Gavin Newsom is rolling back the state's reopening plan. Kyle Stokes is on the line. He covers education for KPCC in Los Angeles. Hey, Kyle.

KYLE STOKES, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So California sheltered in place early on, did very well, then reopened gradually and now a rollback. What does the rollback look like?

STOKES: Yeah, definitely. Governor Gavin Newsom yesterday ordered bars, breweries and restaurant dining rooms to close again. And in the state's most populous counties, the closures even extend to things like gyms, malls, houses of worship even. And the rate at which COVID-19 tests are coming back positive has been on the rise. In Los Angeles, it's almost twice the rate, the threshold, that the World Health Organization sets for reopening. And LA School Superintendent Austin Beutner says that creates a lot of risks for schools in particular.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUSTIN BEUTNER: A 10-year-old student might have a 30-year-old teacher, a 50-year-old bus driver or live with a 70-year-old grandmother. All need to be protected. There's a public health imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish.

KING: OK. So he's explaining the chain of fears there. LA and San Diego are big districts, though. And weren't they under pressure, some amount of federal pressure, to reopen?

STOKES: Yeah, definitely. President Trump, as well as several administration officials, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have repeatedly called on not just LA and San Diego, but districts across the country to reopen full-time. And LA's superintendent, Austin Beutner, said, essentially, if wishing made it so.

He made clear his disappointment with federal officials for failing to provide, as he said, additional funding and leadership. But the superintendent here is also taking issue with some of the more sober calls to reopen. Even on a more limited basis, as the American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested is possible with precautions like masks and social distancing, the superintendent in LA fears the science is still just too inconclusive for that.

KING: So what are parents and teachers saying about the decision?

STOKES: Well, there's obviously a lot of disappointment. This has been really hard for working parents. It's an understatement. LA is also, you know, largely low-income and working-class districts. So you've got a lot of parents working essential jobs. But some of the disappointment is also tinged with relief, parents who were really nervous about sending kids back to schools. And LA's powerful teachers union says this is the right call. They came out last week in favor of an online-only start to the school year. They, too, had real concerns about the safety of schools if they were to reopen, not just for kids, but for adults as well.

KING: I want to ask you about the kids. So LA closed down pretty early, did online learning work last spring. How did it go?

STOKES: Yeah. Well, LA moved pretty quickly to distanced learning. You know, back in March, they closed campuses on a Friday. And by Monday, they began online classes again. And that's a contrast from some of the big districts where students went weeks without instruction.

KING: Yeah.

STOKES: Now, this year, there's a new state law in California that guarantees, quote, unquote, "live daily engagement" between students and teachers. And that's a change from last semester in LA, when teachers were not required to offer live video lessons. But, I think, overall, Noel, district officials here in LA would even acknowledge that distanced learning has been a poor substitute for classroom instruction. And the superintendent is really worried about long-term academic consequences.

KING: KPCC's Kyle Stokes. Thanks, Kyle.

STOKES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.