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Manhattan Beach School Board Extends School Closure

Apr 16, 2020 09:55AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Playgrounds and fields are empty at Pennekamp Elementary during the COVID-19 school shutdown.

Manhattan Beach has extended its school closure "until further notice," according to a decision by the MBUSD school board last night. The move leaves room for the board to discuss the issue further and consider any new information when it next meets on May 6.

The board had been reluctant to make a final decision to close down facilities for this school year, wanting to keep hope alive for students and parents. However, given that California's stay-at-home order has now been extended to at least May 15, the board needed to amend its previously scheduled re-open date of May 5.

"I had been the biggest champion for keeping any hope alive for going back this school year," said Manhattan Beach Unified School District Superintendent Mike Matthews. Yet looking at California Governor Gavin Newsom's latest remarks about what conditions would need to be met before "re-opening" the state, Matthews said, "We may be at a point where we may need to join 95 percent of the schools in the state and declare ourselves doing distance learning for the rest of the year."

The board ultimately agreed to leave the date open-ended. Given that things have been changing so quickly, many board members expressed hope that there may be new information by its next meeting on May 6 that would allow for more definitive answers.

Meanwhile, a petition to hold an in-person graduation for Mira Costa High School's Class of 2020 has garnered more than 1,700 signatures. "It's something we all want - we're trying to figure out how late in the summer we could go," said Matthews. "We will keep talking about it."

Necessary Steps Before Opening

Board member Sally Peel put out a plea for understanding from MBUSD parents. "Parents, please know that we are all passionate about wanting to get our kids back to school, to give kids all that they deserve," she said. "But we have to take all of these critical and necessary and super-complicated steps to make sure it’s right. We have to be strategic, we have to think things through, we have to plan, and that’s going to take time."

For one example, said board member Karen Komatinsky, if groups of larger than 50 are not allowed to congregate, that would mean schools would need to restructure school drop-off, pickup, lunchtimes, recesses, and more.

MBUSD Deputy Superintendent Dawnalyn Murakawa-Leopard added that the district also needed to learn more about what standards would need to be met to consider the schools safe to re-open. "Even if we had all hands on deck helping us do a massive deep cleaning it would take more than a few weeks [to re-open]. I would want to know more about what’s required, to know what’s feasible," she said.

Grading Policies Considered

In the meantime, the school board also discussed what to do about grades for the semester.

Matthews said that county-wide, schools are overwhelmingly deciding to move to a pass/fail format for the semester. Additionally, at the state level, there was a move toward "hold harmless" policies, which could mean 1) No grades would drop below where they were on March 13, the last day of on-campus school; 2) No "F" grades would be given; or 3) a combination of 1 and 2. 

Katherine Whittaker-Stopp, MBUSD's assistant superintendent for educational services, said that at the moment it looked as a majority of teachers in elementary schools and at the middle school felt that a pass/fail option was appropriate. 

However, at the high school, where grades carry more weight in terms of college options and moving into advanced classes, the situation is more nuanced. Matthews said that county-wide, approximately 65 percent of high schools are taking the pass/fail option and 35 percent are keeping grades. Yet many Mira Costa students and parents have spoken out in favor of keeping grades.

Matthews said that he would survey Mira Costa students before making a final decision. The board will have a decision by its May 6 meeting. 

Budget Continues to Look Grim

Meanwhile, the budget numbers that looked bad at the beginning of the year are now looking worse.

"Looking out to the horizon, things don’t look great," said Murakawa-Leopard. "General Services [the business office for the state of California] is telling us to 'batten down the hatches.'"

The budget reductions that MBUSD has approved for 2020/21 will stand, and even further reductions may be necessary, said Murakawa-Leopard.

Much will remain to be seen when the governor's May revision to the budget (known as the May Revise) is released. At the moment, the state Department of Finance has said that it will be a "workload budget," meaning that no new programs will be funded and full funding will not be assumed.

It is also possible that there could be an August revision to the budget, during which there could be another round of layoffs.

Input on Music Programs and Layoffs

The board received an extremely large number of public comments on both cuts to the music program and the prospective layoffs. 

A consortium of Manhattan Beach parents known as Manhattan Beach Music is calling for a new look at funding music programs in Manhattan Beach schools in order to preserve and maintain robust programs.

According to a statement by the consortium, the effort "is not about 'saving' the music program at the expense of other, equally important, programs. Rather it is about shining a light on the fact that the 'us or them' mindset is a false dichotomy, one that we buy into at our detriment. We are interested in engaging in a much broader look at how our district functions, asking critical questions from that wider perspective, and re-imagining when and where appropriate."

The group had commissioned a report from John Benham, a nationally recognized expert on music funding in schools, which they submitted to the board.

Working with the parents, the board voted to create a subcommittee on MBUSD's K-12 music program that would examine Benham's report, MBUSD's overall music program, and best practices in other districts. The subcommittee is charged with reporting back to the board by December 1, 2020.

The board also received many comments about the prospective layoffs, in particular defending the teachers whose names have been on the list.

Peel said that she especially wanted the students who had written in to know that the layoff process wasn't personal.

"If the board votes to reduce a certain number of positions, there’s a formula. In general, the newest teachers are the ones who lose their jobs," she said. "I just want our students to know that we didn’t hand pick the teachers that got the notices."

Komantinsky added that there were plenty of parents who had concerns and questions as well.

"The California education budgeting system is very confusing, complicated, and detailed. There’s still probably a lot of questions out there," she said. "You can still reach out to all of us and ask questions. If you want to dig a little deeper, that’s what we’re here for."

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