The Los Angeles school board keeps moving the goalpost for when students will be allowed to return to the classroom for in-person learning, says the founder of L.A. School Uprising.
Ross Novie, the father of two school-age children, founded the coalition of parents and students calling for Los Angeles schools to reopen for optional, in-person instruction. He launched the grassroots movement after watching his own kids struggle with remote learning.
Novie joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain why he has lost confidence in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education and other local and state leaders to put the needs of children above politics.
Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about a couple who opened up their home to a stranded delivery driver during the winter storm in Texas.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
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Ross Novie: But you have to know, when you look back at this time to reflect on how you performed under the pressure of this pandemic, you will not like what you see.
LA schools during this time will forever be known as a cautionary tale, not New York or Florida or Chicago, or the majority of all the other districts and nations that somehow figured out how to make this happen.
You will all own this, crushing the essential education of hundreds of thousands of kids to avoid making the difficult, painful, maybe even career-threatening choices that were required.
Virginia Allen: That was Los Angeles County parent Ross Novie talking at the LA Unified School District board meeting on Jan. 12 and asking school board members to reopen schools for students who want to return for in-person learning.
Ross Novie is the founder of L.A. School Uprising, a group of parents and students who are and have been asking Los Angeles schools to reopen their doors.
Ross Novie is here with us today to talk about his efforts to get schools reopened and share a little bit of his own perspective as a parent. Ross, thank you so much for being here.
Novie: Thank you so much for having me.
Allen: If you would, you’re a parent of two school-aged kids, so just talk a little bit about what virtual learning has been like for your children.
Novie: Well, it’s the reason I was inspired to start this journey into social activism. … I have a 17-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, and [they] both were very motivated, engaged learners, and they were blossoming.
They’re at the age in high school where you really find who you are. It’s when I found my interest, joined clubs, and really started to grow in a substantial way. And instead things shut down in the spring.
We understood that, but when we saw that fall wasn’t going to open up for them, and then we saw their grades dropping, and then my daughter had some psychological issues starting to creep in, we really became concerned both for her and for my son, who’s started spending all day on the screen because there’s nothing else to do.
And we knew that if this is bad for us, it’s going to be even worse for so many other families who were underserved or have parents who have to work or younger kids who are just learning how to learn, which you can’t do on a screen.
So that’s what motivated us to start pushing back. When we saw that if it was up to the schools, maybe they’d never open, maybe this is just the new way of doing it.
Allen: What have those conversations been that you’ve had with other parents? What are you hearing from other parents in your community?
Novie: It’s a tremendous amount of anger and frustration, a lot with women in particular, who have had to quit the workforce. You know that tens of thousands of women have had to do that.
But people who are trying to do their jobs at home while taking care of their kids, kids with special needs in particular, there’s a lot of anger and frustration, which is then compounded by charges by some people that we’re just lazy or selfish or we want babysitters, and it’s just really outrageous.
Everyone wants the best for our children, that’s what’s motivating us. And we want teachers to be safe, but we also know that virtually every other business in person has found a way to open up.
Allen: At what point did you decide, “OK, I need to take a step further and I actually need to start a group called L.A. School Uprising. I need to mobilize parents and students to really put pressure on school boards, on leaders, to say, “Hey, we need the doors open”?
Novie: Well, I was going to do a movie because I work in television and I actually want to do a movie that would be my magnum opus, “1984,” kind of dystopian, yet with the comedy touch. But then I was like, I don’t think this is the time for that.
I feel like crisis is a test of character, and if I was really frustrated and concerned about my kids and what I saw going on I thought was just a travesty, this is when you have to raise your voice and fight back and push back.
I knew I had to sort of get in there to try and fix things. Because as someone who schedules film shoots, who organizes them, who produces them, I understand the logistics of it. And I saw that they were doing none of the lead work that you need to get kids back.
So it greatly concerned me. And unfortunately, my concerns have been borne out. So that’s when I started just reaching out and finding other parent groups. But then I brought in just an energy they didn’t have and a lot of organizational expertise in terms of getting people combined.
I had taken a Photoshop quiz over the pandemic, so I was quick to make memes. I just wanted to sort of reevaluate how we do social activism too because I’m not a guy who wants to stand on a street corner and wave a sign, that’s not my jam. I wanted to find other ways to get people to think differently, both about the fear that we’ve been told and the data we know about reopening schools.
Allen: Well, I love the approach that you’ve taken. Maybe in a couple of years, it’ll be time for that movie, I would certainly watch it. I hope you still pursue that.
But talk a little bit about what it actually is that you all are doing. I know L.A. School Uprising, it’s a very grassroots movement. Can you share a little bit about the work you guys are doing there on the ground?
Novie: Yeah. Well, really, the first and foremost thing we do is we give other parents hope and a beacon that they’re not alone in suffering and watching their kids suffer.
That was the first thing that was important to me, and that’s what we do, is reach out to find other people who maybe thought, “Oh, my God, what’s wrong with my kid? I’m just not being a good parent.” No, this whole situation is absurd and very hostile to learning and to kids’ development.
So we attract the parents, then we give them outlets to push back.
That can be letter-writing campaigns, where we make it easy for them to email all of our state legislators and the local officials, especially if there’s bills being considered. We have phone call campaigns, we have a petition that people sign, and we, of course, have in-person rallies now that cases have dropped.
What’s great is now parents are self-organizing at this point now between our group and our associated group. And there’s a dozen associated groups on Facebook and we’re all connected and we all amplify each other. I’m also part of Open Schools California, which is the statewide group of groups.
So we’re all helping each other out, and now people throw up a flyer and 200 people show up like nothing. And it’s really expanding quickly.
Allen: That’s exciting to hear. I’m glad you guys are getting so much traction. …
We listened to just a clip earlier, you spoke at the school board meeting about six weeks ago. And you said that, as the second-largest school district in the country, LA Unified, they should really be leading the way on how to safely reopen schools. What appears to be the major roadblock in LA County for reopening schools?
Novie: Before I get into the roadblock, I mean, the thing that gets me crazy is we should be leading, you’re exactly right, and we are like in last place.
I’m a big football fan and one of my favorite coaches, Bill Parcells, had a saying, “You are what your record says you are.” So you might think you’re a playoff team, but if you’re four in 12, that’s what you are.
And so for all of the talk that we have here in Los Angeles about being progressive and equity and caring for other people, the fact is, we are a failure of a school system that is completely letting down 600,000 kids, 480,000 of which are kids of color, and most of them are underserved. They’re the poorest kids, the most vulnerable, and we’ve let them down.
So you can talk all you want about what you’d like to do or what you think you can do, but when it came to serving them and taking care of them, we have utterly failed.
That’s the largest systemic issue that has to be rectified, because the challenge came with the crisis and we failed.
In terms of the blame, there’s a lot of blame to go around. Actually, I do memes almost daily on our Instagram, so again, try and visually point out the absurdity, and we aim fire at everyone.
The governor has not been strong at all, he could have provided a backstop politically for everyone. … If he said, “Let’s open up schools,” and took it on his shoulders, then everyone could have followed his lead, and everyone who has to negotiate locally would have been more empowered to do that.
Our board of supervisors hasn’t done enough. Our director of public health, Barbara Ferrer, has consistently pushed fear and not shown the smartest way to deal with the pandemic. When cases rose, she just treated like everyone was at risk equally everywhere.
So now we’re dealing with the fear of people going back, where they can’t even conceive of in-person education because they’re afraid to go to the grocery store. I mean, [I have] neighbors who haven’t left their house in a year and a half. So bad messaging from her.
Then you have our board of education—none of whom have school-aged kids—who have consistently not planned. … Elementary schools can be open right now as of a week ago, but they weren’t ready.
And that’s inexcusable. They should have been ready to go knowing that cases would come down, so as soon as they hit, you don’t lose a day you need to lose.
Then, of course, at the base of all this is the teachers union, both statewide and also locally, who started out with outrageous demands that had nothing to do with schooling in the summer.
Instead of working with the schools to figure out a safe way to go back—like my union did, the Directors Guild, we figured out how to go back—they have thrown up more and more obstacles to going back.
At this point [they’re] even suggesting that the kids would have to be vaccinated to go back, in addition to everyone who works at the school, including all support—which is not what the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says you need to do and not what any other school system needs to do.
So they have no interest in going back also because they’re being paid, so why would they go back?
And the union, because they’re so strong throughout the state, that’s why no politicians want to push back on what should be a very obvious and easy thing to do, which is we have to educate our children the best way we can.
Allen: If you could sit down with some of these leaders, [Los Angeles Mayor Eric] Garcetti, [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, what would you want to say to them?
Novie: If you get into politics, which I imagine they did to help and serve the community, to make a difference, there comes a time when you have to be willing to give up your political career for things that matter. And most of the time you don’t need to, but this is totally out of history. We have never done this.
Every doctor, the pediatricians say, “Know the damage that’s going to be happening to these kids and the repercussions that are going to happen for years.”
The amount of kids falling out of the system, they’re turning to crime, by the way, shootings are way up in Los Angeles. That is absolutely linked to people not being in school and not having a regular schedule. So we know all of the damage.
At a certain point as a politician, hey, maybe you’re going to get recalled or maybe you lose the support of the union, maybe won’t get to go as far as you’d like, but if you can’t stand up for the education of our children, well, then maybe you shouldn’t be in politics at all.
Unfortunately, no one has the guts to do that and, quite frankly, if they did have the guts, they’d probably go farther with their political career because people would respect that.
So I’m just outraged that it takes a guy like me. … We’re just trying to live our lives, and we accept all of the other messes that come with normal, bad governance, that’s fine. But this was just way too far, and it’s going on even beyond our wildest nightmares.
Allen: Yeah. I think you’re certainly not alone. It becomes really personal when you see it affecting your kids.
Novie: It’s not controversial. There is no counterargument. There are no experts saying, “No, no, we should keep them shut.” It is literally just the teachers union because they’re scared. And I understand that, right? I understand why they got there. But at a certain point, what are we doing?
There’s every article, every scientist, every other country does this, and only in Los Angeles we’re like, “But how can we do it?” What do you mean, how do we do it? Call Miami, it’s been done, it’s been done for months.
So I don’t even understand the pushback other than people who are scared, which, we can’t be held by fear. What happened to “keep calm and carry on” mugs? What happened to “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself”? What happened to all of these phrases, “ask not what your country can do for you”? What happened to all of this wisdom of the ages?
Everyone has gotten completely selfish. All they care about is their own microcosm and they think nothing of anyone else who might be suffering, including these children. It’s crazy.
Allen: Well, we know that on Feb. 22 we saw that the superintendent of LA Unified School District, he announced, “OK, come April 9, we’re hoping to kind of reopen in some form or fashion.” Do you know exactly what that reopening looks like, that they’re aiming for, and are you optimistic that that’s actually going to happen?
Novie: One of the first things I did was called for Superintendent [Austin] Beutner to resign because, unfortunately, he’s shifted the goalposts.
In November, he was talking about just getting the amount of testing and the [personal protective equipment]. And now [that] we have the PPE and the testing and the cases are down now, it became, he’s just fully embraced vaccinating all school workers, which is, again, the teachers’ position and against the CDC.
His plan of April 9, first of all, it’s way too late, they could be open now. Like I said, a week ago, they were cleared by the [Los Angeles County Department of Public Health] for K-6, I believe.
But also Barbara Ferrer, who’s our public health director, said that there’s not going to be enough vaccines for that to happen because they have to share them with other front-line workers who are at risk.
So if they’re not all going to the teachers—so there’s like 1.8 million people in that tier, and we only get like 200,000 vaccines a week. So you do the math, it ain’t going to happen, it’s just not going to happen.
He’s just creating this fictional account, and he keeps portraying himself as like he’s locked into these metrics that he himself is creating.
So look, it’s a very typical situation to be any kind of manager in this situation, no one’s had to manage a giant system with any billion-dollar budget in a pandemic before. But we also know that when you look at U.S. history, like in World War II and the Civil War, when wars begin, usually those generals are the ones that get fired after a few months because they’re bureaucrats, they’re not the people who are the right fit to fight the war.
Unfortunately, between Newsom and Garcetti and Beutner, these guys are bureaucratic guys, they’re not up to the challenge. They didn’t plant their flag and say, “Well, no matter what, let’s work backward from ‘we got to get kids back at school as much as possible because it is destabilizing to society for the kids and the parents if they’re not.'”
That’s where you work backward from, and they haven’t done that because they’re just not up to it. They think this is a normal political game, just like the unions do, “Oh, let’s just do tit for tat and try and get some more funding.” No, this is crazy, this is very, very bad.
Allen: So what’s next for you all then? I mean, if you’re expecting the goalposts to keep on moving throughout the spring, what is your movement and your coalition going to continue to do to keep putting pressure on the schools, but really above all else, to take care of the kids?
Novie: Well, we have to get back to some kind of in-person this semester. And I know it’s going to be some sort of horrendous hybrid system but whatever, we’ll take whatever it is, because if we don’t do that this semester, then the horrible hybrid version of whatever we do will be in the fall.
This will continue on through for nine more months, 10 more months, so we have to do that because we need five-day-a-week in-person classes come the fall. We need that, and we should have no reason why not. At that point, everyone who can be vaccinated will be, and so there’s no more excuses. But I don’t believe they’ll do it if they don’t open up this semester.
Novie: So we need that. And we have some events coming up.
It’s unfortunate, the year anniversary coming up in two weeks. So we’re having two days of kids going back to school, going back to their original school, and then also a big rally. And we’re doing that in conjunction with the Open Schools California group and groups all over the country. So we’re really hoping that’s a big stand.
Allen: Yeah. Well, I so appreciate you coming on the show, Ross, appreciate the fact that you’re standing up and just letting your voice be heard on this issue, standing up for your kids and kids all across California. So, really, really appreciate you joining us.
Novie: Thank you for having me.