Two weeks before school starts, Los Angeles Unified Supt. Alberto M. Carvalho estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 students were unenrolled or dropped out last year, with the problem most pronounced in the younger grades.
While school officials work to identify and enroll children, the district is also trying to fill about 900 teacher vacancies and find more than 200 bus drivers. Carvalho said Friday that he is optimistic that most of the vacancies will be filled before school starts on Aug. 15.
The superintendent’s estimate of the number of absent students is based on the efforts of district staff to work with families and on assessments by outside groups.
Carvalho said he personally contacted or attempted to contact about 50 persistently absent students and their families to better understand the problem and asked 25 members of his administration to do the same.
Based on discussions, he said there could be even more than 20,000 missing students, but numbers are hard to pin down. Several students in his outreach group told him about school-age siblings who sometimes didn’t go last year.
“Some are older, some are very young. Some indicated that they themselves took care of their younger siblings and that they themselves worked one or two jobs,” Carvalho said. “And they told me about many other children who are in the same condition. This is simply unacceptable.”
Carvalho didn’t blame the students and their families, saying the district needs to remove barriers that prevent students from attending school, perhaps through more accessible transportation and better connections to counseling and other family services. According to him, some families choose not to let their children go to school or enroll them elsewhere. He said the district needs to show it offers high-quality programs, classrooms that are safe enough during the pandemic and campuses that are safe.
The district also faces the problem of daily attendance. Data from March 2022 showed that nearly half of LAUSD’s students—more than 200,000 children—were was chronically absent during the last school year.
Most of the absenteeism was related to quarantine and COVID-19 infections. Next year, there will be no home quarantine for asymptomatic close contacts, although students and staff will be required to remain masked during the quarantine period. And officials hope the number of outbreaks will be low.
But even excluding those who must stay at home due to pandemic restrictions, the chronic absenteeism rate was around 20%, Carvajal said, calling the figure “extremely high”.
The district’s K-12 enrollment, which last year was about 430,000, is in sharp decline and predicted to dip by almost 30% over the next decade.
One of the big changes from last year will be the easing of regulations related to COVID. The district will no longer require weekly testing of students and staff for the coronavirus, and there will be no baseline testing before school starts.
LAUSD was one of the most expensive and strict coronavirus testing policies the country is a huge operation with about half a million tests a week, which was the largest source of coronavirus testing in Los Angeles County during the last school year.
In addition, the district will no longer require a daily health screening, which parents or students had to show on their cell phones or print out when entering campus. Under this Daily Pass system, students were required to be up-to-date on COVID-19 tests and to certify their health.
Instead, parents and students will only report positive test results or that their children are sick. While he wants to improve attendance, Carvalho said, no one should make it a priority to stay home when they’re sick. He added that there are enough rapid antigen tests in the district.
As the district prepares to open classes, many difficult issues for the 2021-2022 school year remain unresolved when it comes to staffing, including the employment of qualified teachers amid ongoing state and national shortages and a pressing need for intensive academic renewal. Although the spring standardized test scores have not yet been released, a preliminary review of the data shows cause for deep concern, Carvalho said.
“Our academic data will be released soon, and I know what it will show,” he said. “It will show a significant loss, a significant regression. Now is the time for us to accelerate and we will be ready to teach on the first day.”
Carvalho said the current number of 900 classroom teacher vacancies is close to the historical average, and he will deploy qualified extracurricular staff to the campus as needed.
“We continue to hire every day,” Carvalho added. “If you have what it takes, if you are a trusted person.”
The shortage of teachers hit last year university campuses in the area with the greatest need are the most difficult. Carvahlo first tried the redeployment strategy last spring.
In addition, the district lacks about 200 bus drivers out of 1,000 workers. Those numbers don’t include the 400 drivers the new private contractor hopes to attract with a $5,000 hiring bonus. For its part, the district is gradually implementing a plan to pay drivers for an eight-hour, instead of a six-hour working day, the increase is 33 percent.
Bus leaders and coaches will fill in as needed. In a worst-case scenario, stops may be reduced or routes consolidated, resulting in longer bus trips and longer wait times for students.
The school district provides transportation to approximately 12% of its students—mostly those with disabilities, those who attend magnet schools, and those who need it to attend special events, such as athletics or field trips. The official “walking distance” to Los Angeles school is five miles — too far, says Carvalho. His goals included offering more buses to provide access to more educational options.
One feature introduced Friday could make those long bus rides shorter. Thanks to a grant, the district equipped all buses with Wi-Fi. There is also a new starting fleet of 11 electric buses.
Wilson High School 12th grader Briana Castaneda was among those invited to see the new buses on Friday. To get to her magnet school on the Eastside, she has to drive two miles to the Lock High drop-off location in Watts by 6:15 a.m. Sometimes they don’t drop her off at the Lok Hai stop until 5:30 p.m.
Brianna was grateful for the wifi upgrade.
“It was a good idea because you can do so much with a phone,” she said. “Let’s say I have slides for school. Now I’ll be able to use my laptop on the bus, so I think that’s cool.”