EDUCATION: Manhattan Beach Schools brings back more students, but still faces parent criticism

by Mark McDermott 

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District has been gradually increasing the number of students returning to in-person classes, welcoming back its TK-2 students earlier this month and almost 100 high needs middle school and high school students this week. 

Next week, the district plans to bring back grades 3 to 5, four days a week on a rotating morning and afternoon schedule, and 6th grade for its humanities classes. By April 12, the district intends to begin some form of in-person instruction for grades 7 to 12, depending on forthcoming LA County Department of Public Health guidelines. 

Despite the plans, district leaders continue to face criticism for the pace of reopening. MBUSD superintendent Mike Matthews has come under particular fire from frustrated parents. But Matthews, in an interview this week, defended the pace MBUSD has taken and expressed optimism that some sense of normalcy could return sooner rather than later. 

“I feel incredibly hopeful that we’re going to see all of our kids have the opportunity to get back on campus this year,” Matthews said. “I think one of the things you’ve heard me say is, whatever we’re going to do next, I want to make sure all of our ducks are in a row, that all the safety protocols are ready for us, and that we can do it the right way. And that takes longer than some people want.” 

Matthews said that MBUSD’s return to classroom learning is at the forefront of districts within LA County. 

“Out of the 90 districts in LA County, there are about seven or eight of us who are really at the front, bringing students back,” Matthews said. “And the leadership of those districts, the superintendent and the board presidents, are communicating all the time. We’re trying to interpret the new laws and new regulations from the state and the county. We’re bouncing ideas off each other on how to do things —  how to open for students and how to do it safely. There’s a great deal of communication and support in those districts. I think what is confusing some people is the fact that we still are not going to go beyond the requirements and regulations of the county.” 

A coalition of South Bay school board presidents earlier this month lobbied LA County to prioritize vaccinations for school employees. Those efforts, joined with statewide calls among education advocates for vaccination prioritization, appear to have been successful. Governor Gavin Newsom reversed course last week and announced that 10 percent of vaccines statewide would be set aside for school employees. LA County this week announced all school employees would be eligible for vaccines starting March 1. That, combined with the news that the COVID-19 case rate for LA County has now dropped below a key benchmark, 25 cases per 100,000, has given school leaders a new sense of optimism. 

“Seeing those benchmarks felt like we had taken a huge step forward,” said Jennifer Fenton, MBUSD board president. “I think the prioritization of all educational workers was already in the works, but hopefully our letter and public push made this happen even faster.” 

Manhattan Beach Teachers Association president Shawn Chen said that calls for all teachers to return to classrooms with or without vaccines are “baffling,” given how close teachers are to being able to return in complete safety. 

“We want to be back in classrooms,” Chen said. “Barring new issues with new [novel coronavirus] variants, it looks like we are on track definitely by fall and probably by the end of this school year to get some degree of in-person instruction at every level. It’s just a matter of how to do it safely. We are so close to a vaccine. Why are we rushing?” 

Chen said current district safeguards —  such as a self-reporting app families use that is intended to reinforce COVID-19 safety protocols —  are helpful but not 100 percent effective. 

“We don’t know how to distinguish in the community who is and who isn’t following the rules,” she said. “So the best protection we can get is to be vaccinated. It helps all the people who are following the rules, and those people not following the rules.” 

Matthews said each new phase of reopening takes time. Operating classrooms during a pandemic, he noted, is unprecedented. Identifying high-needs students and how to serve their individual needs, for example, is only a first step towards bringing the students back into a classroom setting unlike anything they have previously experienced —  with cohorts, plexiglass desk shields, and various other safety measures in place. 

“I spent a couple of hours today training people who are to be working with these students, and telling them, ‘We’re giving you this training, but we will meet again tomorrow and revise our plan,’” Matthews said. “Because we have never done this before. We don’t know what to expect. Of course, we expect really good things to happen, but we also expect to see problems we need to fix. So every one of these things has components and that we have never ever experienced before, and that’s why it takes time to implement each new phase. Because each new phase brings along new problems you haven’t thought of before.” 

Matthews said another piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked is distance learning has been implemented so effectively this year that some students, though certainly not all, have actually benefited from it. 

“I think what so many teachers are doing with distance learning is nothing short of remarkable,” Matthews said. “The amount of academic content being covered and the way that some teachers are making connections with students is remarkable. Using our TK-2 classes as an example, our students are getting less academic content when they go back to school, but the social-emotional benefits are huge. So I will defend distance learning for many things, but we know that the in-person connections are what so many of our students need. And so that’s why we’re pushing to get them back.” 

Chen said some students actually prefer distance-learning because they are able to receive more one-on-one attention and feel less social pressure. One high school teacher, in fact, polled his students and found 60 percent preferred to finish the year in distance learning —  in part because they felt it would be stressful to make the switch back to classrooms before finals and AP tests. 

“I actually feel like I make a lot of connections in Zoom class,” Chen said. “There are a lot of small group discussions, and a lot of kids feel more free to participate, or they send me private chats…. A lot of what we’ve learned we’ll keep in some form when we are in-person.” 

But Matthews said that in going into classrooms the last few weeks with students in them, he’s seen kids with smiles so big that no mask can obscure them. 

 “Students are so excited to be back in school, you can see smiles behind the mask,” he said. “They love it. They are interacting with each other, they’re interacting with their teachers. They like school. And their teachers know the benefits of being in-person. They get it. We all know the students have been missing this.” ER

Comments:

comments so far. Comments posted to EasyReaderNews.com may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.

Written by: Mark McDermott

Be an Easy Reader Free Press supporter!

Yes, we know Easy Reader and EasyReaderNews.com are free. But they are not free to produce. The advertiser model that traditionally supported newspapers is fading away. This is our way of transitioning to a future where newspapers are supported by their readers. Which is as it should be. We hope you’ll support us. — Kevin Cody, Publisher