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© Daniel Regan

interviews

When Schools Become Everything Else

by Nick Melvoin
April 22, 2020

This interview with Nick Melvoin, Representative of Board District 4 on the LA Unified Board of Education, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

What is already happening within the LAUSD [The Los Angeles Unified School District] – and what are you looking ahead to?

From the beginning, we wanted to make sure we were taking this seriously. We actually closed the schools before the city and the state had stay at home orders. When we look at the curve that has flattened, at least in California, I'd like to think we had something to do with this mass wave of school closures. The reason it was so difficult for us to close, as I alluded to in the New York Times piece, is because schools are a social safety net for millions of kids around the country. We made that decision a month ago, and since then, our focus has been on triaging the needs of families. 

We approached it like Maslow's Hierarchy, asking what it is that people need immediately. The first things were stability, personal health and safety. One of the first things we decided to do actually didn’t directly affect kids. 

We made the decision immediately that we were going to keep on and pay every employee. We have about 80,000 employees. 

For people who didn't qualify for benefits, but who we were going to ask to do things like help us give food, we were going to provide temporary benefits throughout the length of this crisis so that we weren't asking anybody to work who didn't have health care. Before we even got to the educational aspect, as one of the largest employers in LA County, we made the decision to say that we are going to pay everybody. 

Then we went to food and childcare needs. Our initial plan was to roll out 40 family centers. We closed on Friday, we were going to open family centers that next Wednesday that would provide meals and childcare for 12 hours a day. We were thinking specifically of our employees who needed support and of the first responders and medical professionals. However, we never got the sign off from public health officials because social distancing orders were coming in new waves. 

We are in the midst of rethinking that bit, but in the meantime we transitioned from doing childcare to doing 64 food distribution centers. We are currently running the largest food bank in the country, serving over 5 million meals.

Anyone from across LA County can come get meals, with no questions asked. 

That was what week one looked like, food safety and checking in on the kids. Then we shifted to figuring out our core mission as a school district. We estimate about 100,000 kids don't have access to the needed technology to get online. I was getting calls from some parents like three days after the closure saying, “My friend's kid is in a private school. They're just doing their normal day on Zoom. Why hasn't that started?”  I was like, well, for one, we have 100,000 kids who don't have a way to get on Zoom.

We made an emergency procurement of about $70 million to buy basically every Chromebook and iPad in the state of California, and hotspots for kids, because even if some kids had the tech, they didn’t have the internet access at home. We purchased hotspots, we purchased iPads with LTE capabilities, and we partnered with internet provider companies. Then we spent about a week getting kids tech and then started to transition and support teachers with their online learning and their professional development. It took us a few weeks to get to a point where we're at now with most students and teachers online. 

Now that we have made sure that the learning is continuing, we also have to figure out what to do for the kids who haven’t signed on. Do we do home visits, do we do phone calls, how do we make sure those kids are okay? We also want to bring in a repertoire of the other services we have, counseling, college counseling, mental health family support, as we settle into what is going to be months of shutdown.

Additionally, as a government actor, we are trying to be a good partner. We procured 195,000 masks for the wildfires months ago. Though we continue to need those and to procure those, we made a donation last Friday of 100,000 to local area hospitals. We've been trying to use our purchasing power and our stockpile to support the effort. We have some really innovative teachers in classes using 3-D printers to make masks. There are different layers of this. We're continuing to provide meals, we're using our distribution networks to distribute other things to families, whether that's diapers or headphones or rent support, and then we're transitioning an entire district to online learning for likely now until fall.

It really is triage at a grand scale. Have you made progress on the childcare element of this?

Yeah. The idea is basically to use some city facilities and our schools – no more than six or seven people in a room together at any time. This wouldn't be school, this would really be just childcare. We would provide meals, we provide a clean, safe environment, but we would have service providers who would be doing childcare.

The more this evolves, the harder it's going to be. When we initially created our plan, the guidance was to have no more than 50 people in any one place. Then it went to 25, and then it went to 10. One of the frustrations on our part has been that for weeks folks from the CDC to the governor have been saying, you should still provide child care, but no one said how or yes, we approve your plan. It's been this moving target and we're getting, I think, close to a point where we can say, okay, we can move forward with a plan.

What does this look like for juniors and seniors and their college application process?

For seniors, we've been working a lot with our college counselors on virtual advising. There are some really innovative virtual college fairs happening. The UCs announced that for next year, they're not going to require the SAT or the ACT because our juniors this year, who would be taking the SAT right now, can't do that – that's a nice burden lifted. We're trying to figure out how to continue to make sure they're filling out financial aid forms. A lot of the colleges have pushed back deadlines for when kids can accept. 

I was talking to a college counselor, and she said that she had had a lot of students who were looking at going out of state, who are now thinking about going in state because of the tumultuous times. One of my fears with that is that there is a lot of data around that decision and college retention for first generation students. You might think if they go closer to home, they are likely to stay in school, but actually it's the opposite. When they're close to home, there is a lot of pressure to work or to support the family, and often they will take a semester off or a year off. When kids who are first in their families to go to college leave, they're really committed. That becomes a tough tension, because I get the impulse right now for people to be closer to home. But also, we have the data around retention, and we really want students, especially those first generation kids, to  have the best shot they can.

What are your guidelines and needs for reopening – independent from outside recommendations or guidelines? 

It's a really important question. Even though we were one of the first to close, I was really resistant, in part because of all the social safety elements that we provide. One of the questions we had then was under what conditions are we going to reopen? It's going to be a lot harder to reopen than it is to close. I don't think we know the answer yet, and we are going to be waiting on a lot of guidance so that there's some consistency around school districts. 

It looks unlikely that we're going to have a vaccine by the fall. So the question is, are we going to do temperature checks for every kid that comes in? We are procuring masks for kids and teachers, gloves, more PPE and thermometers, because we know that likely we're going to have to do some sort of temperature check, and it’s possible that we’ll be advised to have kids and adults on campuses continue wearing masks. 

Maybe we have waves of reopening. There's really a lot of questions we all have to answer, and we have to answer those with guidance from public health experts. I think that testing and being clear and precise about that is going to be necessary.

Due to the fact that there can be multiple waves, I'm also encouraging the district and other districts to have the infrastructure ready, so that we could close quickly and learning could continue, should another outbreak occur. We are thinking about what normal will look like for the long term, not just the short term.

What are your biggest concerns for your students? 

The things that keep me up at night are the kids for whom we know home is not a safe environment. We opened a mental health hotline last week for kids, families, for anyone. I'm doing a virtual webinar next week with folks from Cedar Sinai and others around regulating mental health at home for families. We are really nervous about the students who have not checked in, the thousands of students who have not logged onto a device. I’m concerned about students with special needs who can't choose to transition even if they had the tech because of their physical or mental challenges with just logging onto a Zoom.

One of the opportunities is to think more about student mastery of content. What they call competency based learning or mastery based learning. Let's say we reopen in the fall – students are going to be at varying levels of what they were supposed to know. This idea that you were an eighth grader, you go away for summer, and now you are a high schooler, that transition isn’t always smooth and can be difficult on students. There is an opportunity to think differently around this. I think we need to be thinking creatively about diagnostic testing at the beginning of the year. We are figuring out if we should require some sort of multi measured passing assessment before kids can go into the next grade to make sure that they're getting the stuff they need. 

This is also an opportunity to think differently about summer. There's so much research that kids lose a lot of what they've gained during the school year over the summer. There are studies that test kids in schools in more and less affluent areas over summer, and the gap in learning becomes huge because affluent kids are going to camp and summer school. I want us to use this opportunity to say that maybe summer should always be a point of continuous learning. Maybe it is more online or project based, or maybe you find your greatest teachers and you have them teach thousands of kids over Zoom.

We can't let this be a lost generation of students for this year. We need to think differently.

It is also exacerbating what is already a lost generation of students – all the kids who are finishing every year, but not mastering the content. Maybe this helps us re-examine all of that.

This crisis is laying bare a lot of our issues in society. 

In some ways it accelerates evolutions that were taking too long, but it puts a lot of other things on pause. 

I was a teacher in the district during the last recession. I got laid off every year. Thousands of teachers lost their jobs, and predominantly at lower income schools.

While there is a lot of support for schools right now, if the writing on the wall is prophetic, we are going to have a bad recession, budgets are going to be cut, and that usually falls on the backs of children.

As we're trying to figure out how to recapture six or seven months of learning, we're going to also be trying to figure out how to keep districts like ours afloat.

What would have made a difference to you, as a teacher, during the last recession?

The state is in a better position now with a reserve they've built – so they can use that. I think if you ask others, they will say the reserve is not nearly big enough for what's coming. 

The conversations around labor, around raises, though valid, all that has to stop. We really need to protect the school district and public budgets from the downturn. I spent 10 years trying to fight seniority based layoffs, inequitable layoffs that just lay off young teachers serving high need kids. I have not been successful, but any protections we can get from the legislature around equity in your lay off policies is important.

If we are going to have to lay off a thousand people, and we have to do it based on last in, first out, we're going to lose another generation of teachers.

And those teachers are predominantly serving kids in high need areas. It's never been a politically popular idea because the union and the legislature had been against it, but those are the flexibilities needed so that districts can be more surgical about the allocation of resources.

What can LA residents do to be helpful?

Appreciate the question. From a public health standpoint, stay at home, don't be silly, help us flatten that curve. We have set up two funds to raise money for folks who are interested in contributing. One is called LA Students Most in Need, and One Family LA. Students Most in Need is helping the district provide food and technology infrastructure to our families. One Family LA is helping families of school children with everything from rent to groceries to medical payments. 

One of the themes I keep returning to is that pandemics just take what was in the background and bring it to the foreground. These problems, whether it's housing and homelessness, or education, were all crises in their own right, and this is just exacerbating all of them. They are just compounding crises. 

It has also been amazing and inspiring to see people come together in ways that I hope last. I think some of these things we're seeing from the federal government, like paid sick leave – it seems like a no-brainer that we should make sure things like that continue.