Mark McDermott

Manhattan Beach schools Local allowed to reopen TK-2, but teachers are concerned about flouting of Public Health guidelines

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The students and teachers from the Learning Resource Center at Pacific Elementary in Manhattan Beach, including teaching assistant Shelley Johnson (on the left) and teacher Chau Ly (far right). Photo by Brad Jacobson

by Mark McDermott 

Parents desperate to have their young children back in classrooms scored an unexpected victory last week when the Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s waiver request was granted by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. 

The County announced on November 5 that all five MBUSD elementary schools were among the 74 schools whose applications for the TK-2 waiver program were accepted. Local private schools American Martyrs School and Manhattan Academy were also granted waivers. MBUSD hopes to have students from transitional kindergarten through second grade back in the classroom part-time by December 1. 

Superintendent Mike Matthews said the successful applications were especially meaningful because of the level of support they required from the entire community. The applications included letters of support from Mayor Richard Montgomery, the school PTAs, and both MBUSD employee unions. 

“We checked all the boxes,” Matthews said. “It feels like we are all pulling together the same direction. Our teachers, our classified staff, our parents and our community are all pulling in the same direction, and that feels great. Now, we all want to pull at different speeds, and that makes it more complicated…But for me, the fact that we’re all pulling together is greater than the fact that we want to go different speeds.” 

Matthews sounded a note of caution before he submitted the applications on October 23, noting that obtaining waivers would be “an uphill climb” because LA County guidelines prioritized districts with the highest percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. MBUSD has among the lowest percentages of these students in the state and the very lowest in the county. 

“We always thought that because of our socioeconomic status and the very small number of kids who get free or reduced lunch on our rosters that we would not be eligible for the waivers,” Matthews said.  “We thought many people would be ahead of us in line. But when it came down to it, those other schools just did not materialize. Not many public schools applied for the waiver.” 

The only other local school district to obtain a waiver was the El Segundo Unified School District. 

Matthews drew particular attention to the support of both employee unions in the application process. 

“That was a big deal,” he said. “And though that took a lot of conversations and a lot of understanding on all sides on where we stood, we did it — we sat together through a lot of negotiations, a lot of meetings. But then both our classified union and our certificated union said they would be happy to support us.” 

The letter from California School Employee Association Manhattan Beach Chapter 126, signed by president Sara Williams, was a single paragraph that said members “strongly support” the pursuit of the waiver. The letter from the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association was two pages long and a bit more equivocal. The letter, signed by MBUTA president Shawn Chen, expressed appreciation for the collaborative approach the district has taken and “guarded optimism” regarding a phased-in approach to more in-person instruction. But the letter also emphasized the importance of adherence to the County’s COVID-19 reopening guidelines. 

“We will rely on the continued communication with our members, feedback from surveys and continued productive negotiations with district leaders as the process moves forward,” the letter read. “Ongoing attention to community spread of COVID-19 and measures to mitigate that spread as in-person instruction resumes will be a primary focus for MBUTA leaders.”  

The teachers’ union has been a target of parents frustrated by the pace of reopening. The frustration boiled over on a Facebook page called Manhattan Beach Residents Forum in which residents, including Councilperson Suzanne Hadley, discussed a “Parent Town Hall Forum” conducted Monday night featuring LA County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo and LA County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer.   

Ferrer, who noted that 32,000 COVID-19 cases in LA County have been among children, at one point brought up the importance of the “parent community” understanding the notion of “cumulative risk.” 

“We can create extraordinarily safe environments at schools, but if when everyone leaves that school building, they engage in high risk behaviors, then we’ll just see more cases in schools,” Ferrer said. “For many people, because there’s so much asymptomatic spread, you can take a lot of risk outside of school and then you go into the school community, you bring that risk into the building. And I say this because a lot of people think when we’re reopening schools, that means it’s safe to just go back to normal and all of our other activities.”

“It’s exactly the opposite,” she said. “If we’re going to have all of our children in school and there’s going to be a lot of mingling in schools that’s unavoidable, or you’re going to work and you’re going to be around other people at work, then when you’re not in those places or spaces that are absolutely essential for well being, you need to reduce risk by not engaging in a lot of the other activities that aren’t as essential. So it’s really not like when schools reopen then everything else is open and our children can do all the activities they were doing before or after school…Those are the kind of activities that will set us back. ” 

Ferrer pointed to a COVID-19 outbreak that occurred in which 10 West Covina teenage baseball players tested positive after the team traveled to Arizona to play live games, an activity not allowed in LA County. 

“I know how hard it is to ask this of everyone,” Ferrer said. “But if the priority is for children to be in school, then some of the other activities have to be a lesser priority and we have to not really be doing this.” 

Two dozen Manhattan Beach “Sand and Surf” youth soccer club teams last week traveled to Arizona to play live games, something that caught the attention of teachers preparing to return to in-person instruction. Chen indirectly referenced this in the Manhattan Beach Residents Forum. 

“If parents continue taking students out of state for sports activities and family gatherings of more than three households, it will endanger staff and other students attending school in person,” Chen wrote. 

The comment elicited an immediate rebuke from Hadley. 

“If parents cease doing fun and fulfilling family activities like sports and family gatherings, it will endanger the lives and well being of their children,” she wrote. 

Hadley argued that schools are essential businesses that should be open, and chided Chen for commenting on parent activity. 

“Let’s keep teachers (and unions) focused on reopening, not on what families do in their personal time,” she wrote. “It’s not appropriate, it’s well outside their jurisdiction, and should neither be condoned nor tolerated.” 

In an interview, Chen expressed concern over a sense of “Manhattan Beach exceptionalism” that leads parents to think that somehow they are not subject to LA County COVID-19 guidelines. 

“When we go back to school in-person, those kids and parents need to follow the rules,” she said. “They need to take safety seriously, which many of them have not been doing. It’s concerning, because we are doing something that is beyond the necessary requirement —  many, many schools in LA County are not going back. So we are taking this step for our students, and that step involves trust. And some of the people we are trusting are showing a disregard for our safety and health…These are people who want all the privilege and none of the responsibility.” 

Chen said that most parents have been extremely supportive of teachers’ concerns. She called Hadley and others who criticize teachers’ concerns a “small but definitely a vocal minority” whose actions could imperil teachers who are trying to accommodate parents’ wishes. Those teachers, she said, are willing to return to classrooms at risk to their own well being. 

“We need some cooperation from people who are demanding that we roll over for them,” she said, noting that teachers’ contracts do not require they subject themselves to unsafe conditions. “So our return to school is predicated on their ability to enact that clause of our contract. They have a right to make themselves safe.” 

LA County remains in the “purple tier” in the state’s reopening framework, which signifies widespread risk for COVID-19 infection. And as Ferrer noted Monday night, the trends are worsening. Four days last week registered more than 2,000 positive tests and hospitalization rates are approaching the pandemic’s worst days.  Even in Manhattan Beach, 40 positive cases were reported during the last two weeks of October. Nine new cases were reported Monday, the second highest single-day total in the city since the start of the pandemic. 

Even so, Chen said teachers remain hopeful that TK-2 waiver will lead to a successful and safe reopening. 

“We are in support of a cautious reopening with serious consideration of health and safety,” she said. “We are not 100 percent sure it will work, but we want to get students back in classrooms. Teachers want to be back in school.” 

Matthews said the district’s approach has been to move deliberately and with utmost caution towards safely reopening. 

“We’ve been expanding since September 16,” he said. “We started with our preschool and our EDP program, then we brought our athletes back on campus. And then we started bringing our students with IEPs back on campus. And now this. So the number is growing. I like the progress. It’s deliberate. I’m very comfortable with the trajectory, and I know we are heading in the right direction.” ER 

 

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