UCLA Education and Health Experts Discuss a Safe Return to Schools in Light of COVID-19

Howard Blume of the LA Times spoke with Professor of Education Tyrone Howard, UCLA Lab School principal Georgia Lazo, and UCLA pediatrician Dr. Nava Yeganeh.

The collective expertise of education and health professionals was offered in a webinar on “Opening Schools in Light of COVID-19,” presented by the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies on Wednesday, Aug. 5. The inaugural event of the webinar series was moderated by L.A. Times education reporter Howard Blume, the panel included Georgia Lazo, principal, UCLA Lab School; Tyrone Howard, UCLA professor of education and director of the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families; and Dr. Nava Yeganeh, specialist in pediatrics and infectious disease, UCLA Health.

Interim Wasserman Dean Christina Christie welcomed participants and outlined the goals of the webinar series on impacts and creative solutions to addressing the pandemic in schools, topics that have proven divisive across the nation. She underscored the goals of the series to present credible, science-based information on school safety and the safety of teachers and families while exploring promising data-driven school practices.

“The reopening of schools in the midst of the current pandemic presents complex challenges as we try to balance safety on the one hand and quality of instruction on the other, and it’s a very difficult balance indeed,” Christie said. “Bringing people together for learning and discussion and sharing knowledge and best practices is a key part of our mission at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and at UCLA. While I do not even begin to think we have all the answers, we fortunately have a deep well of expertise here at UCLA to draw upon as we explore these issues. This series will draw upon this expertise, but it will also seek out expertise wherever it is found, nationally and indeed, globally.”  

Blume, who has done extensive reporting for the Los Angeles Times on schools and coronavirus, examined the options and feasibility of in-person instruction in schools as they begin to reopen in Los Angeles and around the country this month. His questions of the panel focused on both sides of reopening schools – whether in person or with hybrid schedules – in the midst of a pandemic.

“At stake is the psychological wellbeing of children, their education, and even their future,” he noted. “Families depend on education to lift up their lives and depend on schools to provide vital child care so that they can work. They also depend on schools for providing safe environments and trust that education leaders will not put their health at increased risk.”

Dr. Yeganeh, an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Disease at the David Geffen School of Medicine, underlined the various risk factors involved in reopening schools. While very young children of elementary school age are relatively low-risk of contracting or transmitting the virus, older children and adults at the school are at higher risk. Yeganeh also noted the impacts of COVID-19 on societal factors such as higher rates of suicide attempts, drug abuse, and the decrease in reports of child abuse, which due to financial and other stresses upon parents and caregivers, is increasing. She called for more funding for schools in order to implement safeguards and additional staffing to protect their communities of children, teachers, and families.

“People have to make it a priority and they have to do it by keeping other non-essential [businesses] closed, and we have to make it a priority by paying for it,” said Dr. Yeganeh. “We should definitely be opening schools before bars.”

Dr. Yeganeh noted that the risks of COVID-19 will be present for a long time to come, affecting society and the schools that support its flourishing. 

“We can’t mitigate the risk to zero, we can never go back to pre-COVID times,” she said. “Even once we have a vaccine, we’re not going to be able to decrease transmission completely, it probably will be around for many years. 

“One of the questions I get asked is, should we reopen schools, and my answer always is that … we have a moral imperative to prioritize their reopening,” Dr. Yeganeh said. “Schools are so important for human development, understanding and knowledge. So, the question is, what can we do to mitigate the risk the best, and that’s the crux of all our research. I think in-person education is irreplaceable, it should be prioritized. It’s essential and so I feel like we have to figure out a way to do what’s right for our children.”

Lazo, who was the founding principal of the UCLA Community School, shared findings from the UCLA Lab School’s 3-week summer day camp in June and July, which provided a pilot for the return to school in the fall. The program, which will be described in a practitioner brief available on Aug. 12, had participants of 36 students, eight paraprofessional educators, two administrators and two program coordinators. 

Findings from the pilot included perspectives from children and adults on their experiences around the use of masks, physical distancing, neurodiversity and special needs, logistical vs. learning challenges, and recommendations. Lazo said that the pilot was held, “to inform particularly school site leaders about unanticipated challenges. It’s to help prepare all of us to implement public health guidelines. How that’s been interpreted at the school site and how that actually plays out at the school site is something I think is really important, in addition to really focusing on the perspectives of children, and those who work closest with them.”

Lazo also underscored the importance of school communication regarding child-friendly messaging on safety measures like handwashing, the use of masks and social distancing. She also cautioned school leaders on the importance of monitoring symptoms not only at school but among households, how to communicate unexpected absences among students and school personnel, which may or may not be COVID-19 related, and the increased need for mental health supports for children and adults. Lazo said that while UCLA Lab School does have the benefit of being associated with a research university, many of the measures taken during the summer pilot could apply to other schools.

“The UCLA Lab School is part of a very large public institution and in many ways has lots of similarities with larger public school districts,” Lazo said. “We have 450 students in our elementary school, which is about average for some schools. Much of what I shared is indeed applicable to any school that is thinking about plans for resuming in-person instruction. What we learned is important and … applies to any school that is thinking about how to maintain mitigation strategies.”

Professor Howard addressed the racial and economic inequities that have been exposed in the wake of COVID-19, saying that, “… this pandemic is going to do in terms of telling us as a society about who we really are.

“During this pandemic we will learn a lot about whether or not we are committed to these democratic ideals that we say we believe in,” he said. “At this really difficult moment it has made the realities around inequities even more front and center in all of our everyday lives. All these issues speak to our long, ugly history in this nation of racial inequality and deep-seated poverty. And so, as we think about reopening schools, as we think about what’s safe, I also ask that we all think about what’s equitable, what’s just and what’s fair.” 

Howard delineated the additional deficiencies experienced by low-income students and students of color, including an impending uptick in what the already rampant level of homelessness in Los Angeles County. He also called for a prioritizing of the needs of English language learners, special needs students, and foster children and youth, who depend on school for needed services and a sense of stability that has been lost to them with school closures. 

“Schools, for so many students, have served as a source of consistency, structure, routine, familiarity, [and] the relationships that young people form with [other] kids,” said Professor Howard. “There are parents and caregivers who have tried to do the best they can for the last five months under the most intense circumstances. I want us to make sure that we are prioritizing and we have data systems in place so that as we begin to invite students and families back in, we are thoughtful, we are intentional and we are aware of the fact that some communities have suffered far more during this period in time than others have.”

To view the first panel discussion on “Opening Schools in Light of COVID-19,” on Aug. 5, visit the UCLA GSE&IS YouTube channel.