Extend the school year? Teachers say no, parents say meh. LAUSD retreats from its plan

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Howard Blume
·6 min read
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Superintendent Austin Beutner, right, and UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz
Teachers union President Cecily Myart-Cruz, left, and L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner inspect COVID-19 safety preparations at Panorama High School in March. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A few weeks ago extending the school year seemed like an obvious move to confront pandemic learning loss. But Los Angeles school officials on Tuesday gave up on the idea for the next academic year in the face of opposition from the teachers union and no consensus from parents.

The union argued that teachers and families are too exhausted to extend learning by reducing time off. In a district survey, parents were closely divided over the issue.

At the end of an extended discussion, the Board of Education voted 7 to 0 to endorse a normal 180-day school year calendar put forward by staff, but several members expressed reservations. Supt. Austin Beutner was not pleased and he faulted the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles for not thinking ahead to what students need and what teachers would be ready to provide by the fall.

"All who work in schools have answered the call to serve, in ways one could have never imagined just a year ago. Right now, they’re exhausted," Beutner conceded. "August and the start of a new school year should be different. More people will have been vaccinated, levels of the virus should continue to decrease and most people who work in schools will have had a much-needed break. One of the responsibilities of leadership is to look down the road and set goals for what needs to get done by the time we get there."

Union President Cecily Myart-Cruz had signaled the union's position in an interview last week before announcing the results of a member survey.

"I do feel like folks are exhausted," Myart-Cruz said. "We have some great educators that are doing amazing work. But I do recognize that we've had lots of upheaval during the course of this year. And I don't want to downplay that."

Campuses closed on March 13, 2020, forcing an immediate shift to online instruction. They began to reopen the week of April 12 this year, resulting in additional challenging adjustments.

At the time of Myart-Cruz's comments, she was touring a Westside elementary school with Beutner and the two chatted amiably long after the tour concluded. In a Friday social media broadcast to members, Myart-Cruz took pains not to criticize the district's intent, but added: "Here's what I keep hearing from parents and educators alike. We cannot follow the most stressful and emotionally traumatic year our learning communities have ever had with the longest school year we've ever had."

She also questioned whether there was sufficient planning to make the proposed extension effective.

By the time of Tuesday's vote, senior staff had withdrawn the extended school year, while still describing additional learning time as "a critical need for students" in a report to the Board of Education.

"District staff explored with UTLA leadership a variety of alternatives to accomplish this, including starting the school year early, regular Saturday school, longer school days, or shortening existing breaks, which occur at Thanksgiving or in January," the report stated. "Unfortunately, all were rejected."

The options had included 10 more school days for students, then six days for students and four days for teacher training and three days for students and two optional training days for teachers.

The union leadership, however, was determined to abide by the results of a member survey: About 75% of members responded; about 75% of those opposed extending the school year, according to the board report.

"We took that message into bargaining," Myart-Cruz said in her broadcast.

The district had previously released the results of a parent poll representing 76% of students. Of those, 44% wanted no change to the calendar, 29% favored starting school two weeks earlier and 27% favored starting one week earlier and also shortening the three-week winter break by one week.

Board member Scott Schmerelson insisted that the survey format made the third option — no change — hard to find, leading him to speculate that a higher percentage of parents oppose the longer year. But he and other members expressed the hope that the 2021-22 school year could be extended with broad support.

Board member George McKenna said he was troubled by the argument that people are tired. Sometimes, he said, sacrifice and extra effort are called for: "Freedom costs. Excellence costs.”

District officials said they would look to other opportunities, presumably optional, to help students in the wake of a pandemic that some experts say has academically harmed many students, especially those with special needs, including students learning English and those with disabilities. California parents also have expressed concern that their children are falling behind.

"Each school will design an evidence-based plan to provide extended days/time," according to slides in the presentation to the school board. Proposed areas of focus are: learning acceleration in math and English; "social emotional learning and community building," and "unconscious bias training and plans to accelerate racial equity."

Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, whose members include principals and assistant principals, also conducted a poll. Within that union, about 27% of members responded. Of those, about 62% wanted no change to the instructional calendar, and overwhelming majorities wanted to maintain the current length of the winter and Thanksgiving breaks.

One union on Tuesday voiced support for the extra 10 days. The leadership of Local 99 of Service Employees International asserts that an extended school year would benefit students, while also providing needed extra pay to its members, who are called classified employees and include teacher aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and building and grounds workers. Local 99 is comparable in size to the teachers union, but many members work part-time and are among the lowest-paid district employees.

"It was a win-win, supporting student learning — that's important to do — and also supporting classified employees, at least for this year," Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias told the school board. "So we encourage the board — and exhort the board — to ask the superintendent to add those 10 days back that you had initially proposed to be in this calendar."

Board member Nick Melvoin noted the irony that a strong majority of senior staff and the school board wanted a longer year, but that it wasn't going to happen — all of which underscores the need, he said, for a robust summer program that includes enrichment and even play time on campus.

District officials are ironing out a plan for summer school. They have indicated that, most likely, students will have the option of a hybrid on-campus schedule similar to what was rolled out last month. Under that format, students spend about half of their school week on campus. The district plans to make summer school available to all students, but it would be optional both for students and teachers.

The first day of instruction will be Aug. 16 and the last day June 10, 2022. Board members moved up the proposed schedule one day so the last school day would be a Friday rather than a Monday. There will be a weeklong Thanksgiving break and a three-week winter break.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.