The news from the Long Beach Unified School District arrived in a jarring email and text message at mid-day on Friday the 13th in March of 2020. Schools would close until at least April 20 due to the global coronavirus pandemic. The school closures were then extended to May 3, and then again to the end of the school year in June as the number of illnesses and deaths nationwide continued to climb at an alarming rate.
The school district, being 135 years old, was no stranger to adversity. The Spanish Flu had shut down schools here a hundred years ago. The 1933 Long Beach earthquake destroyed numerous school structures, their unreinforced masonry crumbling when tectonic stresses triggered the Newport-Inglewood Fault. Historians observed that because the 1933 earthquake struck when school was out, “the physical shell of a school system had received a mortal blow, but the living heart of it had been spared – its children.”
That “living heart” also has been spared during the 2020 pandemic. Children have been least affected by symptoms of the virus, which has been most harmful to the elderly, particularly people with underlying health conditions.
But the pandemic began taking a financial and psychological toll throughout society. The stock market initially crashed. Tens of millions of people nationwide filed for unemployment benefits. Store shelves emptied, and basic items like toilet paper and protective face masks oddly became treasured commodities. Businesses closed. Weddings, funerals, graduations and church services were canceled.
The school district, meanwhile, tried to serve its students as best it could during the closure period. The Board of Education held meetings via videoconference and YouTube livestreaming, with public testimony supplied via emails that were read aloud by staff.
By mid-April, schools here had provided children with more than a quarter million meals to go, an important feat in a school system where two-thirds of students qualify for free lunches because their families cannot afford them.
Soon, the school district began helping to provide food for the city’s homeless shelters. Cabrillo and Jordan high schools became sites for drive-through coronavirus testing, and Lindsey Academy served as a temporary fire house. Students from McBride and Poly high schools began making protective face shields using 3-D printers, with Molina Healthcare contributing funds to the cause.
Within days of the closure, the school district offered a Home Learning Opportunities website providing lessons specific to individual schools and teachers. Administrators and teachers distributed encouraging videos to families, along with more than 11,000 Chromebook computer tablets and information on how to access low-cost Internet at home.
But students and teachers soon missed their in-person interactions, so much so that some schools organized parades, with teachers driving their cars through neighborhoods as beaming students and parents cheered them on from the safe confines of their homes. At 8:20 p.m. on Fridays (20:20 in military time), high schools lighted their fields and buildings as a salute to the Class of 2020.
Amid all this, the Board of Education announced (via virtual meeting) that they had selected longtime LBUSD educator Jill Baker to succeed retiring Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser. The next day, the front page of the Long Beach Press-Telegram contained the headline “LB Unified Names Chief.”
Juxtaposed on the same front page was a story about virus infection rates and hospitalizations beginning to level off. That headline read, “Signs of Hope Among Deaths.”