EDUCATION: School reopening protest targets MBUSD leaders

by Mark McDermott 

At the beginning of last week’s Kids Need Classrooms rally outside City Hall, organizers stood before an audience of about 100 people and held placards aloft that were stamped with headshots of four Manhattan Beach Unified School District board members, Superintendent Mike Matthews, and teacher union leader Shawn Chen. 

Rally organizer Tiffany Wright told the audience of about 100, which included Mayor Suzanne Hadley and City Councilmember Joe Franklin, that those six people were responsible for kids not being in classrooms. 

“Those people are the red lighters,” Wright said. “We’ve got Shawn Chen the teachers union….Mike Matthews, superintendent of our school district here.” 

The crowd erupted in boos at each name, especially Matthews. 

“So when your CEO doesn’t want to open, it’s kind of hard to open, right?” Wright said. “He continues to give us a bunch of misinformation, misinform our board so that they can make the right decisions. So we’re here today to call them out.” 

After the rally, one of the parents participating emailed Chen, the president of the Manhattan Beach Teachers Association. 

We had a rally today. Your photo was there,” the parent, who asked that her name be removed from this article, wrote. “Now our entire town knows that YOU and many others are fighting against our kids. They used to just know your name and now they have a face to a name!” 

Chen, in an interview, said that she found the email, and the use of district leaders’ images at the rally, both saddening and threatening.  

“Like a handful of other misinformed residents, [she] isn’t clear on the facts — Covid is the reason schools are limited in their offerings of in-person instruction,” she said. “And the efforts of Mike Matthews, the board members and teachers who serve as union advocates are all focused on opening schools for in-person instruction. Lashing out at the very people working to open the schools is not a productive tactic.” 

Chen said that Wright and other protest leaders expressed the intention to be “collaborative” with district leaders “and then put our heads on a pike, which then inspired people to email me threateningly.”  She said she understood that the pandemic has created pressures on everyone but questioned how villainizing the very people tasked with reopening schools safely helped anyone. 

 “It’s obvious that people are experiencing overwhelming emotions,” she said. “[This parent] being inspired to send threatening emails is akin to the conspiracy theorists threatening to hang [former vice president] Mike Pence or kidnap [Michigan Governor] Gretchen Whitmer…People launching personal attacks and misdirecting their anger at civil servants adds to the problem. It’s unclear how people think they are forging a productive path forward. Insulting the very people they demand take charge of their children defies logic.” 

The parent said that her email was not intended as a threat to Chen. She had twice emailed Chen to share the negative impact distance learning has had on her own son, she said, in hopes of creating a greater sense of urgency to begin more in-person instruction. 

“My email was to let her know that she can no longer hide from our community,” she said. “She needs to own up to her decisions that are killing our kids, literally. It was not a threat.” 

School board president Jen Fenton questioned why the rally was scheduled at a time the school board was in session, meaning no members could attend. 

“I think it’s interesting that these reopening rallies are coincidentally organized on days that we have our public meeting,” Fenton said. “You have to pause and wonder why, since no one from the board is able to attend.  It’s akin to us scheduling a rally to re-open City Hall during a Council meeting.”  

Fenton said that MBUSD is at the forefront of all districts in LA County in re-opening and has been since the Department of Public Health began allowing limited numbers of kids back in classrooms, beginning with preschool, high school sports, and EDP programs in September, high needs hybrid programs for its youngest students in October and December, grades 3 to 5 high needs hybrid this week, and 6th-grade hybrid next week which will allow kids to return for humanities classes. 

“There are a small handful of public school districts that are currently offering in-person instruction in LA County, and MBUSD is one of them,” Fenton said. “The notion that four out of five trustees voted to keep schools closed is inaccurate.” 

Matthews has drawn the particular ire of protesters and other frustrated parents. In early February, a post appeared on social media from a parent who held Matthews personally responsible for the lack of in-person instruction occurring.  The post was titled “Pain or Pleasure” and began with a question: “What are Mike Matthew’s true inner needs or ‘personal wins’ (as we call them in the tech sales world),” the parent wrote. “What is at the core of his personal motivations?” 

It ended with some suggestions, presumably for like-minded parents, in how to make Matthews open schools up. 

“We need to understand what drives him and create massive pain,” the parent wrote. “Is he married, have kids, what has his career path been, where did he grow up, where does he live, what are his hobbies, any hobbies, passions outside work.” 

Matthews addressed that parent’s specific frustration in a subsequent newsletter.  

“I hope we can all continue to work together and find ways to overcome the threats posed by this pandemic,” he wrote. “To answer a few of the questions asked by this person, my motivation is to educate and care for our students and to follow recommendations that will keep our students, our employees, and our community safe. I want it all. Nothing would make me happier than seeing all of our campuses return to normal.”  

Board member Jason Boxer encouraged parents to reach out. 

“I fully grasp the immense pain and pressure that our parents and students are experiencing, and I’m always open to hearing from anyone who would like to provide guidance to me in my decisions as a board member,” Boxer said. 

Wright, in an interview, said that she personally reached out to the parent who wrote that post and believes his intention was misunderstood. She said the man was a single father with two kids who was using the language of sales training and did not intend what he wrote as a threat. Wright believes Matthews used the post inappropriately. 

“I thought it was taking advantage of a parent who is desperate and really looking for the sympathy card, quite frankly, I just thought that was really poor of him. He’s a leader, and I expect more from a leader.”  

Wright said what the Kids Need Classrooms movement is advocating locally isn’t to go beyond LA County guidelines but to more fully utilize what is allowed within those guidelines. She identified three areas in which she believes MBUSD could bring more students back. Elementary schools could return all kids whose parents want them in classrooms, Wright said, by utilizing a “stable group” model which allows full classes so long as those student groups don’t intermix with other stable groups; this would replace the use of cohorts, which is limited to 14 kids, and in some instances would require four feet between students (separated by plexiglass) rather than the current six feet. 

“We actually have a computer model,” Wright said. “We had a firm map out every single classroom, and we had to make some changes because of some logistical issues….We’re just talking about a few classrooms here, so it’s really not something that should hold up the entire full-time elementary school.” 

Wright said sixth grade could be expanded beyond what MBUSD is planning because humanities classes cover three class periods and thus would enable stable groups and more time in classrooms. And she argued that County guidelines allow up to 25 percent of secondary students to be on campus in cohorts, something Wright said could be achieved by utilizing the teen center across from MBMS. 

“The reason why we are gaining so much traction —  we have over 700 members —  is because I think these [guidelines] are confusing and they’re hard to keep up with and they change week to week,” Wright said. “We want to make sure parents are educated on that.” 

“We want to work collaboratively with our board and with the superintendent,” Wright said. “We don’t want to call anybody out. But it’s getting to the point now, where we have to make parents aware of who is standing in the way of schools opening to the fullest extent that LA County allows. We’re a small nimble school district. We should be able to open quickly and I think it behooves us to do so.” 

Matthews maintained that MBUSD is maximizing LA County Department of Public Health guidelines. 

“I am highly aware of how some parents are interpreting DPH rules on distancing, and I have personally asked DPH officials about the rules and some parents’ differing interpretation of those rules,” Matthews said. “They have confirmed our practices. That being said, all of the situations are evolving, and we continue to work with DPH in a quickly changing environment. If there are changes, we will examine them and again, work to implement all DPH rules safely and effectively. At this point, our attention is fully focused on bringing our middle school and high school students back to campus.” 

“All I can say is the same thing I have been saying for months now,” Matthews said. “We are following the guidance and regulations of LACDPH. Whenever LACDPH has allowed us to reopen a sector of our schools, we have studied the regulations, made the necessary preparations to implement those regulations safely and effectively, and then reopened. We have communicated regularly and our documentation is available for all to see. Along with other South Bay districts and just a handful of others in LA County, we are leading the way for other districts in our county. I’m proud of all we have done, thrilled to see our students and employees learning, working, and smiling in our schools, and looking forward to the next phase of reopening when it is allowed.” 

Chen said she’s felt no sense of collaboration from Wright and the Kids Need Classrooms movement. 

Tiffany called us ‘red lighters.’ I would call her out, based on her claim to be inclusive [and] ask her how holding up cutouts of the heads of leaders in the re-opening process, people who have actively done the work required to get kids in class —  which is happening —  and mocking them represents any kind of collaboration.” 

Fenton said that the personal nature of the attacks on district leaders has been disheartening but said that the bigger picture, with teacher vaccinations occurring this week, is increasingly positive. 

“This is a good week for MBUSD,” she said. “Our 3rd through 5th graders are now back on campus, we’re preparing for the return of our 6th grade on Monday, and our staff is getting vaccinated. I have so much gratitude and applaud everyone who is working unremittingly to make all of this happen.” ER 

 

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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