The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has had a tough week, but it hasn’t been a breeze for Amanda Reitz, either.
The Los Angeles mother of two opted to keep her 2nd grader, who attends Playa Vista Elementary, and her 4-year-old, who attends the district's early-childhood special education program, out of school in support of striking United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) members.
“I appreciate our teachers too much,” she said in an interview.
But she’s missing her job as an intern with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office. And because it has, uncharacteristically, rained every day this week, she and the other moms visiting the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles on Thursday have had to find ways to keep their children occupied.
“It’s been kind of rough because they just got back from [winter] break,” Reitz said.
Even though LAUSD schools have remained open, the majority of the district’s students have stayed out this week. On Thursday — when the district resumed contract negotiations with UTLA — less than 84,000 of the district's roughly 500,000 students attended school. Perhaps that's because the district issued a statement Wednesday clarifying that absences during the strike would not affect graduation, that principals would work with families on attendance, and that the district would not put "students in the middle of disputes between adults."
Low attendance this week, however, raises the larger question of how district leaders decide whether to close schools when teachers walk out.
Apparently, in LAUSD, leaders never considered shutting down. “We have a duty to provide an education to our students, and have taken appropriate measures to do so,” a statement from the district read.
But during the widespread walkouts last year, students in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky missed multiple days of school before agreements were reached. And the Tumwater School District in Washington was one of several in that state to delay the opening of school last September instead of starting on time.
District officials felt "confident that we would be able to quickly reach an agreement with our teachers,” Laurie Wiedenmeyer, a spokeswoman for the district, wrote in an email.
“The other factor we were compelled to consider was if we would be able to operate schools if our teaching staff did not report to work. We assessed that it would not be possible to hire enough substitutes to cover classes, so that also impacted our decision.”
'Building contingency plans'
With other districts, including Oakland, Chicago and Denver, currently facing the possibility that teachers will vote to authorize a strike, whether or not to close schools is a decision that more officials may have to make.
“Denver Public Schools is building contingency plans to keep our schools open in the event of a strike,” district spokesman Will Jones wrote in an email. He said the district would prioritize special education students if a strike occurs. In addition to having a pool of licensed substitutes, the district is also recruiting “guest” substitutes and would call on central office administrators to also provide instruction.
While LAUSD assistant principals and regional office administrators have been leading lessons this week, such an arrangement can also take a considerable toll on administrators — another factor for district leaders to consider. On Thursday, Juan Flecha, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA), shared the voices of principals throughout the district in a letter to LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner and the school board.
"I need to take this opportunity to express the concerns of AALA members regarding the dire and unsafe working conditions they are experiencing," Flecha wrote, suggesting that maybe the district should consider closing schools until the strike ends. "The expectation is your immediate action to address and ameliorate the distress and outright anxiety our members are experiencing."
Many families that did initially send their children to school this week decided their children might be better off staying at home, having play dates or participating in some informal learning activities.
“I went to school for one day. We weren’t really doing anything,” said Kimberly Lorenzo, a 9th grader who attends the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, a high school near the city's downtown area. Many schools have combined all students in attendance into large groups in cafeterias, libraries and other common locations.
Kimberly and her family were also at the museum Thursday, taking advantage of the free admission at its two locations offered to LAUSD families this week. In just the first three days of the strike, over 3,500 LAUSD students and chaperones visited the museum, according to spokeswoman Sally Marquez, and another 630 checked in to the La Brea Tar Pits, a mid-city museum and “Ice Age fossil excavation site.”
“It feels like Saturday and Sunday,” said Kimberly’s younger brother Jason Antonio, who attends Union Avenue Elementary. The family also went to the Los Angeles Zoo for free this week, where Jason saw a live bird like the one he spotted in the museum's diorama.
Like other families at Canfield Elementary in the Beverlywood neighborhood, Kyle Stewart and her 8-year-old daughter have been picketing with the teachers in the rain every morning. Children, she said, like to still be able to say hi to their teachers, even if they don't go into school for the day.
Stewart took her daughter to her office one day, which "was not very conducive for children," she said in an interview. "But we had no other option. You can tell it's weighing on the children, too."
Serving young children
School districts with preschool programs have an additional set of issues to consider when teachers strike. While hiring substitutes and enlisting administrators might allow schools to continue providing lessons and activities for K-12 students, such a strategy might not be sufficient to meet the adult-to-child ratio regulations that apply to most early-childhood programs. Even school district preschool programs are often required to meet child care licensing requirements.
That’s why LAUSD this week closed all of its state preschool classrooms, which serve about 3,500 children from low-income families in a part-day program. The district's standalone early education centers, which serve 9,500 children, were also closed except to those children receiving special education services.
"We do know that its tough for some of our families," Dean Tagawa, LAUSD's director of early childhood education, said in an interview. "They walk by some of the centers and say, 'Are you open yet?'"