SUN VALLEY, Calif. – For months the head of school at Village Christian, Tom Konjoyan, has been waiting for L.A. County to give the green light for schools to apply for waivers to re-open classrooms. That wait has at times turned frustrating.
“It’s really sad. This time of day we’d have lots of students out here running around, laughing, playing with friends,” Konjoyan said. “Instead, there’s just a lonely teacher online at a computer.”
Konjoyan said his school spent more than $100,000 since March adding safety measures to the school, including creating outdoor classrooms, adding plexiglass to desks, and installing washing stations throughout the Sun Valley campus.
And at the end of August, Konjoyan said he thought a partial re-opening was in sight, for at least his elementary school classes. L.A. County’s new coronavirus cases dipped below 200 per 100,000 residents; that was the threshold established by California’s Department of Public Health to review waiver applications.
But L.A. County had the power to make the ultimate call of whether or not to open up applications to schools like Village Christian. L.A. County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer expressed concerns that the county was the hardest hit in the state and that the numbers were on the cusp ahead of a holiday weekend, so her department decided to take a “more cautious and measured approach,” and did not open waiver applications.
“I sympathize with the public health officials. This is their first time through a pandemic as well, however, I feel like in L.A. County our public health officials were telling us they were following data and science in all their decision making and when they veered away from the state waiver program, it was really concerning for us,” Konjoyan said.
He and other private schools decided to band together and fight for school waivers through a coalition called ‘Students First.’ He was joined by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as well as representatives from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“We thought it was important for private schools and others in the community who want to reopen to organize our voices,” Konjoyan said. “Online education is just a poor substitute for real education. And we believe that we can open up our school safely.”
This week, L.A. County reported new coronavirus cases were down to 7.3 per 100,000.
At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn introduced a motion to implement a limited school waiver program.
The Board voted unanimously to approve it, extending applications to elementary school grades TK-2, prioritizing schools with low-income students at a rate of 30 schools per week.
“The motion was the result of both seeing a decrease in the number of cases and recognizing the social and emotional toll prolonged school closures are having on children,” said a representative for Supervisor Barger.
Shortly after the vote, Dr. Ferrer issued a statement about the waiver program moving forward in LA County:
“Our cautious approach to re-opening, thus far, has led to slight decreases of daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and we will continue to move cautiously so that we can consider safely reopening additional services and businesses in the near future. We will be reviewing waiver applications meticulously so that we can be assured that the schools have the protocols in place that will minimize covid-19 spread as much as possible.”
The decision was a relief for Konjoyan, but he felt the county should do more to open the waiver applications to a larger pool of schools and students.
“I am glad that the Supervisors are listening to the thousands of parents and hundreds of schools who want to reopen safely. However, I am disappointed in their decision to only allow 30 schools per week to receive waivers in TK-2. Surely a county as large as L.A. County can safely reopen more 30 schools filled with a few hundred students under the age of 6,” Konjoyan said.
He added that Village Christian’s community has many low-income families and that his school’s enrollment has been hit hard by the impacts of the pandemic.
“I think people have a misconception that all private school families are wealthy and that’s not true in L.A. county. Our school for example is a school that works with a lot of blue-collar workers. And these families are hurting from the pandemic like many Californians,” Konjoyan said. “We’re one of the only sectors of the economy that have not been able to reopen. And we just think that students and their learning should be a priority.”