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District Lays Out Plans for Special Ed, K-2 Waiver

Oct 08, 2020 10:39AM ● By Jeanne Fratello
The Manhattan Beach Unified School District on Wednesday night laid out its plans for high-needs students to return to school, as well as its plans to apply for a waiver to bring back K-2 students.

According to MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews, the current plan is to bring back a limited number of high-needs special education students in the week of October 12 for high priority assessments. Additionally, the district will bring back 35 to 40 high-needs students who will work with teachers in small cohorts of no more than 12 people per cohort. 

Regarding K-2 students, the district is preparing its application for a waiver from Los Angeles County, said Matthews. (The application was first made available on Monday.) Once the district has completed its negotiations and has secured approval from the union, it will be able to submit the waiver to the county, which Matthews said could happen as early as one week from Friday. 

However, the waiver is not guaranteed on any specific timeline. Currently Los Angeles County is only offering waivers to 30 elementary schools per week, or six per county supervisory district. The county is also giving priority to schools with high percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Matthews emphasized that the county will consider waiver applications in aggregate each week, and they are not "time-stamped" so there is no such thing as being "at the end of the line." Nevertheless, it remains unclear when any Manhattan Beach schools may be chosen under the current process. 

Return of High-Needs Special Education Students

The initial high-needs hybrid cohorts will serve approximately 40 students at the Manhattan Beach Preschool, the Special Day Class (SDC) at Pacific and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) classrooms at Pennekamp and Meadows.

The cohorts will serve students with the highest need based on the number of specialized services they receive, their percentage of time in special education, and/or other health or communication needs.

The district will then form additional high-needs hybrid cohorts that will serve more students in early November. These cohorts will serve students who have intensive academic and/or behavioral needs. To determine the level of need, the district will prioritize students with a greater number of specialized academic instruction minutes and/or behavioral needs through a review of student behavior intervention plans.

Matthews said the district would keep adding special needs cohorts until it reached capacity set by the Los Angeles County Department of Health, which is currently limiting schools to 10 percent of their population. For elementary schools, this would mean between 30 to 53 students per site; 133 students at the middle school, and 248 students at the high school.

The district has faced criticism for being slow to return high-needs special education students back to school. Matthews addressed that criticism in his comments to the board.

"We saw public comments all over the spectrum. The majority were about getting back to school, but we also had comments about making sure it’s safe back at school," said Matthews. "We have to do this safely. Some people are looking at us bringing back 35 or 40 students in the first wave and thinking, 'That’s not enough.' We think its commensurate with what’s being done, but more importantly, we want to show everyone - parents , teachers , classified staff - that we can do it safely."

Matthews continued: "If that is done successfully, at the very least we can keep this timeline. We would hope to expedite this schedule. I don’t want to guarantee anything. But the emphasis is it has to be safe.... I believe we have a great plan in place and we're ready to move forward."

Parents have also challenged whether the teachers' union has been holding MBUSD back in its return to school plans. But MBUSD Deputy Superintendent Dawnalyn Murakawa-Leopard said that the district had a "true partnership" with the union in its discussions.

"It’s really about, how do you take those guidelines and operationalize them," she said. "We ask each other a lot of questions, like what does this mean, and how do we do this well, and how do we do this in a way that is practical and feasible and also maximizes everyone’s safety. We ask each other really good questions."

Murakawa-Leopard added, "It has been a really fruitful process and I've really appreciated the partnership we’ve had with our labor groups because they’ve really helped us to be better in our reopening."

Waivers for K-2 Return to School

The district is currently working on its application for a waiver for K-2 students to return to school. Matthews said that the district had asked for letters of support from the PTAs as well as City Council, which they expected to receive, and would need a letter of support from the union. Negotiations with the union are continuing on Monday, he said, and the earliest the district would expect to have the waiver application complete would be on Friday, Oct. 16.

Again, leaders emphasized that the current waiver program is extremely limited with only 30 elementary schools in all of Los Angeles County approved each week. Additionally, with priority given to schools with high percentages of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, Manhattan Beach would be less likely to be chosen.

At the same time, district officials noted that announcements from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health have come swiftly and unexpectedly in the past. In addition, L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has indicated that L.A. County could be moving into Tier 2 by November, which would mean more school reopenings.

As it prepares for the K-2 return, the district had been looking at an AA/BB model, in which one cohort of students would go to school in person on Monday/Tuesday, and a second cohort would go to school in person on Thursday/Friday.

Yet the district is also considering an AM/PM model that would have one cohort of students at school in person on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings, and the second cohort in person in the afternoons.

Whatever plan is chosen, it is expected to lay the groundwork for other grades as the schools moves toward full reopening.

Board members asked for patience from parents throughout what has been a unique, fast-changing, and frustrating crisis for the community.

"This is a very difficult situation," said board member Sally Peel. "We have had some successes, but I have to acknowledge that we have also had some problems where i don’t feel like we’ve moved quickly enough, and the district has not communicated as well as we can. But I absolutely feel like right now, the best use of our time is to focus on our shared objective with our community, with our parents, our teachers, our staff, our administration...which is to give students an excellent education. The best use of our time right now is to focus on moving forward and to keep working on problems and pushing ahead."

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