EDUCATION – Manhattan Beach Unified School District reopens prepared for Omicron surge
by Mark McDermott
Many school systems across the nation have been forced into remote learning because the Omicron surge has led to an unprecedented increase in COVID-19 cases. But the Manhattan Beach Unified School District reopened as scheduled Monday after a two-week winter break.
The reopening was possible due to a combination of factors, foremost the high vaccination rates within MBUSD, and the many mitigation measures the district has honed during the course of this school year.
Superintendent John Bowes said the priority after students lost nearly an entire year of in-school learning, was to do everything necessary to prevent any more such loss.
“Our primary focus is making sure that students can attend school in-person and to do whatever we can to mitigate learning loss,” Bowes said in an interview. “I outlined three things earlier in the year. We want to make sure students are in school, in classrooms, in seats, learning, and with their friends every day as much as possible. We want to make sure our schools are safe and healthy. And we want to approximate as normal a school year as possible.”
MBUSD must follow state and county protocols. But even within these parameters the district has gone to extra lengths to ensure students miss as little classroom instruction as is safely possible. Bowes sent out a lengthy newsletter to parents Monday evening that included a section regarding MBUSD’s “Modified Quarantine” for unvaccinated students who come in close contact at school with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19. Normally such students must be quarantined at home, but the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is allowing districts the option of keeping these students in classrooms so long as they do not have symptoms, and both the infected student and close contacts are confirmed to have been wearing masks.
Bowes wrote that the County affirmed this week that the modified quarantine would still be allowed.
“Our Modified Quarantine has kept unvaccinated students who are deemed to be close contacts in school and, to date, 353 students have been able to benefit from in-person instruction because of the Modified Quarantine – that means that, collectively, these students have been in school for over 3,500 more days of school than they would have been under traditional quarantine rules,” Bowes wrote. “MBUSD will continue to utilize the Modified Quarantine, and we know that wearing masks indoors and outdoors is a key component to keeping students in school.”
Bowes praised staff for “behind the scenes” work of contact tracing that made the modified quarantine possible.
“School site staff invest so much time in those contact tracings, but it pays off because students are still able to come to school in person,” he said. “And again, that is the key goal.”
Still, the central reason students were in classrooms at every Beach Cities school district this week was because of the area’s high vaccination rates. And unlike the larger and less vaccinated student population at the Los Angeles Unified School District, students were not mandated to arrive at school with negative COVID-19 tests in hand.
Dr. William Kim, the chief medical officer for the Beach Cities Health District, specifically praised Manhattan Beach, which has the highest vaccination rates among school children of any district in the area.
“The amazing thing in the South Bay is, in general, the population listened to the benefits of vaccination,” Kim said. “And we see that the 5 to 11-year-olds and the 12 to 17-year-olds have been really well vaccinated when compared to other parts of the country and even LA County. For instance, in Manhattan Beach, the 5 to 11-year-olds, they’re 69.9 percent vaccinated as of December 26. And the 12 to 17-year-olds are 98 percent vaccinated.”
Bowes echoed these sentiments, noting that MBUSD’s vaccination rates are a key reason why he had full confidence in bringing kids back to classrooms after the break.
“I would urge everyone to keep in mind that our vaccination rates at every age group are much higher than those of the countys, and it’s often the county numbers that are cited, or state or national numbers,” Bowes said. “But in Manhattan Beach, we have very high vaccination rates across the board.”
Countywide, only 23.8 percent of 5 to 11-year-olds are vaccinated, and 81 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds.
The other key elements essential to a safe return to school this week were mitigation efforts ranging from mask use to upgraded ventilation systems. Masks are required in classrooms, and strongly encouraged outdoors on campuses. Even in music rooms, specially designed “instrument masks” are utilized, and “bell covers” must be used for horns and woodwinds. Music students are also required to be tested once a week. Athletes who play indoor sports where masks are not possible must be tested twice a week, while those who play outdoor sports must test once a week.
”Wearing masks and making sure employees have the upgraded masks, ventilation, and filters on all these air machines — we are taking all those steps to make sure campuses are safe,” Bowes said. “The on-school testing program is an area where we could see more people signing up. I think that regular testing is an important way also to help create safe and healthy campuses.”
MBUSD offers optional, free testing each week at all campuses. But the last week for which data was available, the final week before the holiday break, only 15.5 percent of students participated in the free testing. On Thursday and Friday of this week, however, all students will be given free take-home test kits, which were provided by the state and distributed by the county.
“Each kit contains two tests, and we’re asking families to please administer one to their students over the weekend to help inform attendance on Monday, January 10, and then to keep the other tests in reserve for future use,” Bowes said.
MBUSD also screens students cell phones at campus entrances with a QR code — called the Ruvna program — that accesses students’ answers to
to questions about symptoms, exposure, testing, and diagnoses prior to entering campus.
School attendance data for Monday was surprisingly robust, given the rate at which Omicron has spread. According to MBUSD, student attendance was within regular attendance rates for the pre-school and high school, six percentage points lower at the middle school and 14 percent lower at the elementary schools. Staff absence was just under 9 percent on Monday, and that is about 2 percent higher than a normal Monday.
“I think we’re in the same position as most of the other districts I’ve been in touch with, in that there is a higher percentage of certificated and classified staff out right now, just like student attendance rates are a bit lower because of positive cases and the nature of the Omicron variant,” Bowes said.
The superintendent praised the MBUSD staff, and students for their conscientiousness.
“I am just tremendously proud of our staff,” Bowes said. “Every time I am visiting school campuses, as soon as you walk into a classroom, it is clear that high levels of instruction, and learning are happening.”
Bowes acknowledged that the challenge of delivering education during this pandemic has been unlike anything he has encountered in his three decades in public schools.
“I was the lead negotiator for LAUSD during the Great Recession, and I used to think that would always be the biggest professional challenge of my career,” he said. “But the coronavirus has left that in the dust.” ER