Q&A: LBUSD Superintendent Jill Baker on school reopenings, vaccines, summer school

Note: This interview with Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Jill Baker has been edited for clarity and length. It was conducted prior to the LBUSD winter break.

MIKE GUARDABASCIO: The LBUSD has said it plans to soon apply for a waiver from the Long Beach health department to begin allowing in-person school for kindergarten through second grade. Can you share more details about that?

JILL BAKER: We had actually done the preliminary work of collaborating with TALB (Teachers Association of Long Beach) prior to Thanksgiving. When the health conditions were looking like they were still heading in the right direction we were hopeful of bringing in small groups for TK-2. We had a good discussion with TALB and then had to halt the planning because we want to make a good common-sense decision.

There’s a prediction that after Christmas and New Year’s they’re expecting a surge, which we’re hoping calms down and gets us into better health conditions towards the end of January.

We are looking at methods of starting by highest need in each Board [of Education] area. While our data says spread does not happen a lot between children, every place we put children has to have caring and qualified adults who do go back into households. So even if we get a waiver, I want to dispel the idea that this will be like a light switch turning on. It’s going to be methodical. A school in each board area would be five schools, which is different than all 52 schools with TK-2. We will proceed at first methodically before we further open.

MG: There’s been a lot of discussion on social media that the district isn’t planning on coming back for in-person learning this school year or that you’re pretending you’re going to while secretly knowing you won’t. How committed are you to reopening schools?

JB: We are very determined to get students and families who want to come back in person back into school buildings. I’d underline very determined. We are also prepared for many families to not want to come back until there’s widespread use of the vaccine. We’re prepared for both. But it’s very important for us to get kids back into our buildings. The heart of our work is the interaction between students and teachers and students and their schools. Our teams have been incredible about doing what they can on the phone and via Zoom, but it does not replace the relevancy of what happens with a student and teacher or a counselor interacting in person.

MG: Where is the district with regards to testing teachers once schools reopen?

JB: We’re exploring methods of making testing more readily available, specifically to ease the minds of adults who are coming into the building.

MG: Were you surprised that Los Alamitos Unified was able to keep its schools almost entirely open in the fall? I’d heard from some in the district who expected more closures when they announced they were reopening.

JB: I think at the early childhood level it hasn’t been a surprise. The open/close is happening; sometimes it’s at the classroom level so that’s less of a news story than a whole campus closing. They’re seeing what we’re seeing. We have experience from March onwards of 1,600 kids with PPE receiving preschool or childcare services [in person at campuses]. We’ve had to respond to COVID spread almost exclusively among adults—we’re seeing that it doesn’t spread among kids on campus.

MG: What are your thoughts on the state- and county-level health departments’ positions on keeping schools closed?

JB: One of the things we’re talking about is that the tiered system was not designed to determine school operations. Part of our advocacy is around, “Is that the best way to make these decisions?”

(Note: Baker and other superintendents recently sent a letter to the state outlining their position.) 

MG: If you got the okay from the state to reopen, what stops you from opening campuses tomorrow?

JB: Nothing. Now, tomorrow? No. But January 28, we were prepared for our hybrid model, and we’ll be prepared for March 1. We have the PPE, our screening and protocols were set and are set. We’ve been reviewing those checklists with principals and custodial staff to refresh. I think there’s an idea out there on social media that unions are holding this up and it’s not true, it’s the county and the state. There is a percentage of teachers who have health conditions that will prohibit them from coming in. We have a great workforce and we will probably have to make some decisions about how to manage those who make the decision not to come in.

On any given day, more than 55% of our teaching staff are teaching from the classroom right now. I’ve heard from plenty of teachers who can’t wait to get back to teaching in person, and I sure hope that public appreciation for the importance of teachers and schools is a big part of our future in 2021.

MG: Is there a timeline for providing vaccines to teachers in Long Beach and when that will be completed?

JB: We don’t have a timeline yet on everyone being vaccinated, but we’re expecting we’ll have some available for educators soon, with more information to come soon on that. We will be getting the Moderna vaccine.

(Note: City officials recently said teachers would begin receiving the vaccine in the second week of January.)

If asked I will publicly take the vaccine. As a white woman, I don’t represent an underserved community by nature of my race, but I still think that’s an important commitment to make. The more of us who are willing to do that, getting people out there to take the vaccine will be a really important part of what happens in our community. Providing it in a way that it’s readily accessible for educators is really important. We are actively in partnership with the city in how we can participate in the vaccination program, including school nurses being a part of giving them, and using the testing sites at some of our schools as vaccination clinic points.

MG: Will it be a requirement for kids to take the vaccine at any point?

JB: We are not at this time planning on requiring vaccines for kids unless the state makes that a requirement.

MG: You said in May there was no chance to try to avoid COVID-19 completely, that districts would have to figure out how to operate with it as part of the world. That has certainly proven to be true, but schools still are mostly closed, so how do they reopen with COVID-19 still present in our community?

JB: I’ll stand by the idea that we’re not trying to get back to ‘normal,’ we’re trying to re-imagine our future with this. Every single person has been changed because of this experience, some more negatively than others. I still think that it is about management and about putting precautions in place to move forward because we’ve had success doing that with 1,600 kids who’ve been in buildings since all of this has happened. We now have some looks at how other districts are doing things successfully.

We also know that about 50% of the public is saying they’re not sure they’re going to take the vaccine. We can’t wait for that; our children are losing ground right now, especially students of color. We are going to have to effectively manage knowing that there’s some risk, but coming back into school buildings.

MG: What is that new future going to look like? What is the immediate fallout of this stage once kids are back on campus?

JB: I certainly want our community to know that I think the next phase of the conversations about bringing students back into school will center around what we can do to support them in that transition. We are going to come out in the next few weeks with plans for spring and summer which will look very different than they have in the past. We are thinking at each level about a different kind of learning experience in the summer to help them recover. There will be opportunities for our high school students to take a lot more courses (than are traditionally offered). We are also adding asynchronous days in January to help students and teachers get a break.

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