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Launching online learning during coronavirus is ‘akin to landing on the moon’

In a sign that the digital divide may be closing among Los Angeles public high school students who have lacked computer or internet access, teachers have connected with 96% of their pupils, leaving about 5,000 still unaccounted for, Supt. Austin Beutner said Monday.

A week ago, about 15,000 high school students were missing online or had not connected with their teachers since the school district shuttered campuses on March 16 and began the challenging move to online learning. The school district is on spring break this week.

“Even in the best of times, launching a comprehensive online learning program in the nation’s second-largest school district would be a monumental task, akin to landing on the moon,” said Beutner in a video update. “It would take years of careful planning, investment, training and engagement with the entire school community. During extended school closures due to the coronavirus, Los Angeles Unified is doing it in a matter of weeks, because students most in need are counting on us.”

Along with tracking down students, the district has had to ramp up training for teachers.
“Each teacher starts from a different place, and we’ll need to be patient and flexible as we provide professional development,” Beutner said. “This will also need to be balanced with the demands on teachers of continuing to work with students and taking care of their own families.”

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The school system is also spending an estimated $100 million for up to 200,000 computers and internet hot spots. The district has about 482,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and more than 75,000 employees.

The district’s online learning management system was not set up to accommodate so many simultaneous users, and at times students and teachers have been unable to log on. Engineers from Amazon are working with L.A. Unified to expand that capacity.

Beutner also said that the district is working with the city to set up childcare centers for hospital workers.

In an interview with The Times, the superintendent estimated that the district is spending about $2 million a day to provide food to families in the community at about five dozen distribution sites. He said he spoke with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week about funding for the food program and said she was supportive in general of the district’s efforts.

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Beutner said he also plans to speak with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages federal funding for school meal programs.

Times staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.