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Reopening Schools Movement Draws Support, Concerns in Manhattan Beach

Nov 20, 2020 09:41AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Parents gather for a rally at Polliwog Park on November 18

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the first day for TK-2 hybrid students to return to campus has been moved from December 1 to December 8.

A high-profile rally in Manhattan Beach to reopen schools drew support from many quarters, but teachers and other officials continue to caution that the issue is not so simple.

A "Rally for the SAFE Opening of Schools and Sports Activities" on Wednesday at Polliwog Park drew more than 200 parents, students, and residents. Co-organized by actor and Manhattan Beach resident Vince Vaughn, the rally was the largest to date of local efforts to reopen schools. 

Yet just an hour later at the Manhattan Beach Unified School District's board meeting, board members heard a different perspective. All 17 letters received for public comment at the meeting were from teachers and parents urging the schools not to reopen with the TK-2 waiver as planned for December 1, due to the recent uptick in cases and the upcoming holidays.

Following the meeting, outgoing MBUSD school board member Karen Komatinsky summed the whole situation up as both difficult and frustrating.

"It’s been a really hard year. It’s been a very complicated year. It’s not getting better as quickly as all of us would like it to, and I'm sorry for that," she told DigMB. "It's just such a multifaceted, complex situation. It's not like you can just say, 'Hey, we’re back to school, come on back in.'"

Rally Highlights Consequences Of Isolated Kids

The rally drew more than 200 parents, students and community members. It had a celebratory air, with sign-waving, a DJ, and even cookies for kids. 

Speakers included Vaughn; Martha Koo, a psychiatrist and board member-elect of the Beach Cities Health District, Remco Waller, board member of the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation; Neil Perlmutter, Mira Costa High School varsity basketball coach; Genevieve and Gabriella Olson, Mira Costa High School students; and Christine Norvell, former principal of Pacific Elementary School.

The speakers covered the academic consequences as well as the physical and social/emotional consequences of being away from school for such a prolonged period of time - and emphasized that there are ways to bring back students safely.

Co-organizer and local parent Tiffany Wright said that the rally organizers wanted to the event to be seen as both positive and inclusive. 

"We wanted this to be a unifying event and we did not want criticism of our district or leaders. If we’re going to get any movement around progress, we have to make it a positive experience for everyone. If we alienate anyone, that’s going to be one less person on the bandwagon," she told DigMB.

Nevertheless, Wright said, "Everyone can do better at every level," when it comes to getting kids back to school.

For example, California has stricter guidelines than the CDC's guidelines, she said, adding, "Why don't those [CDC guidelines] work for us when they work for other states?"

Additionally, she noted, L.A. County has been "incredibly stringent on their policies" for opening up schools in comparison with other counties - in many cases being more restrictive than what the state calls for. (One of the most-cited examples of this is California allowing waivers for grades TK-6 for counties in the Purple Tier, but L.A. County only currently offering them for TK-2.) 

And lastly, when it comes to MBUSD, Wright said, "There’s been some really great work done. Our K-2 were waivers approved so quickly. A lot of that was successful negotiation and hard work with the teachers' union and administration. MBEF has done a lot of work for us. The PTA did a fantastic job with letter advocating for a quicker opening. There’s been a lot of great things done at the district level. But as we see what other school districts have done with their waivers, we seem to be a bit slower, so there’s room for improvement."

Many parents have come under criticism for bringing their children to out-of-state sports tournaments. Wright made the point that those students would be safer if they were allowed to be busy at school in their home state. 

"We think that kids are safer and families are safer when kids are able to play their sports games locally, and not making trips to Arizona to play soccer. We told [L.A. County Supervisor] Janice Hahn that by not giving them a choice to play locally, the parents are making decisions that are far more risky. Kids are far safer playing locally while following the protocols," said Wright.

Two of the most significant sources of support at rally came from leaders who were not able to attend but who submitted statements to be read aloud.

L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn wrote, in part, "I want you to know that I hear you and I share our goal of getting kids back to classrooms as quickly and as safely as possible. I took your concerns to [L.A. County Department of Public Health Director] Barbara Ferrer and I am hopeful that as long as we get our county's case count back down to the safer levels we saw just a few weeks ago, you should look forward to third through sixth graders getting back to school in January [through the same process as the TK-2 waivers]."

MBUSD school board member-elect Cathey Graves was also not able to attend, but submitted a statement that read, in part, "We looked at the recent [health and wellness] survey data and we know despite all of these efforts to connect our kids to campus, it is not enough... We cannot replicate these experiences on Zoom. The best solution is for our kids to return to in-person school. I am excited about our special needs and TK-2 children returning to campus, and applaud our school board and superintendent for making that happen. Please continue all of your efforts to get all of our children back to school. Make responsible decisions. And encourage your kids to do the same. We need to demonstrate to the community and school leaders that we can create a safe environment for our students and teachers. Make your voice be heard."

Wright said that she was encouraging interested parents and community members to join the South Bay Open Schools Facebook page, and to continue writing letters and putting pressure on county and state leaders.

School Board Hears from Concerned Teachers

Meanwhile, Wednesday night's school board meeting yielded 17 comments from teachers who are concerned about the planned December 1 return to hybrid school for TK-2 graders, especially with the recent jump in cases.

"The timing of our opening alarms and bewilders me," wrote Pennekamp Elementary kindergarten teacher Marni Notarnicola. "I am wondering if we can hold off until the numbers decrease or after the December holidays. My fear is that my students will go away during the holiday season and come back to infect me and my family. I do not have a choice, I can’t take a leave of absence at this time. I speak for many teachers with this concern. Please reconsider the timing of our opening."

Kim Holz, a Robinson Elementary teacher and a 2019 California Teacher of the Year, wrote: "It has become clear to staff that we are under-prepared for a reopening three short business days away. Protocols are not fully in place, there are not clearly articulated plans for organization and safety that have been communicated to staff, and the necessary shifts in pedagogy when teaching in a hybrid in-person model have not been discussed. While we all want to get back to school with students in the classroom, this is currently not the way to do this considering the above mentioned concerns combined with rising COVID numbers in Los Angeles County and holiday travel. We implore you to listen to your teachers and reconsider the reopening date."

Shawn Chen, the president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association (MBUTA, the MBUSD teachers' union) told DigMB, "I get many emails every day from our MBUSD teachers, even those who have no choice but to agree to hybrid learning even if it is a possible death sentence, begging me to help delay this in-person start date."

Chen added, "Teachers who want to stay safe do not have the option to 'take a leave' — while many [at Wednesday's rally] have the luxury of guaranteed income from a variety of sources. Teachers need to work and they are providing the essential service of education safely at this moment."

MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews acknowledged at the meeting that the teachers had concerns, but pointed out that the district had already planned to start the TK-2 hybrid slowly. The current plan calls for students to start out on campus one half-day per week, and teachers to be on campus two half-days per week.

On Friday, November 20, Matthews wrote to TK-2 parents to inform them that the district will implement asynchronous learning days for all students in grades TK-5 on Tuesday, December 1 and Thursday, December 3. The schools will use this time to provide employees, including those in grades 3-5, with training on safety protocols to be used in the TK-2, and eventually in the TK-5 hybrid programs; and to allow teachers to prepare for in-person instruction.

On Tuesday, December 8, TK-2 students whose parents have selected the in-person learning will start the hybrid program with their teacher on campus.

The 'Tedious Minutiae' of Reopening

After the meeting, board member Komatinsky reiterated to DigMB that the process of getting students back into the classroom while following all current health and safety protocols was extremely complicated - and schools will look much different than they did back in March.

For one example, she said, parents will not be allowed on campus. Schools are creating a new drive-through pattern, and all students (even first-time potentially crying kindergartners) will have to be dropped off and escorted to class by a staff person. Kindergarten teachers will not be able to hold a student's hand. The classrooms will also look much more sterile, without carpets, carpet squares, sofas, or many of the shared materials that are associated with younger grades. Outside the classrooms, passages need to be one-way, so schools are mapping out which directions students go in, and placing signage and directional arrows. And of course all staff need briefings on the new procedures and training on PPE protocols.

"There’s hundreds of these things that we have to do. It’s tedious minutiae and crazy-making work that just takes a lot of time. We have to spend time on really investigating every facet, and then some," Komatinsky said, adding, "There’s so much that the public doesn’t see. We’re not just sitting there letting the chips fall where they fall."

Komatinsky continued: "We're trying to work as creatively as we can without putting anyone at risk. I appreciate rallies and free speech, but what we really need is parents to be collaborative. We need parents to abide by the rules, abide by mask wearing and not social gathering, because it’s just delaying what we want to do, which is go back to school."

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