Manhattan Beach schools push back start date for in-person instruction

The reopening of in-person classroom instruction within the Manhattan Beach Unified School District and all area schools has been suspended due to the surge in COVID-19 cases occurring throughout Los Angeles County.

Superintendent Mike Matthews issued an unusual Sunday night message to the MBUSD parent community announcing the change in plans. The school board had held a special meeting on December 31 in which the date for reopening was moved from January 5 to January 13.

“Since then, two of our elementary-aged child care cohorts are not in school due to two cases of COVID in those classrooms,”

Matthews wrote in his Sunday night message. “And while there is no evidence of spread so far, which has been the case in all of our classrooms, these two incidents bring our case total to 34 since we returned to campus on September 16, 2020. That’s a big number, and it reflects the number of cases in our community.” Matthews said that Los Angeles County Department of Public Health director Barbara Ferrer last week recommended that schools that are open suspend in-person services until February 1.

“I’m strongly recommending that schools not reopen for in-person instruction,” Ferrer said last Thursday. “I’m recommending this for three weeks, until the end of January.”

On Friday, Ferrer issued further explanation of the recommendation, in which she described the current surge as unprecedented and suggested it may worsen.

“We have not yet seen the full impact of the travel and social gatherings that occurred during the end of year holidays, which will manifest later this month and likely add to the current overburden on our hospitals and emergency departments,” Ferrer wrote. “The diminishing capacity of our health care system to care for the most severely ill among us is at a critical juncture and we all must do what we can to mitigate this trend. The best way to accomplish that is for all Angelenos to remain at home as much as possible and limit their social interactions to their immediate household members. This recommendation for schools is intended to support this strategy.”

According to LAC DPH data released Tuesday, Manhattan Beach Middle School registered four new cases this week, including three staff members and one student. Matthews said that at Wednesday night’s school board meeting he planned to recommend all instruction aside from preschool and childcare move to virtual learning until February 1.

“Whether we like it or not, right now we live in the global epicenter of COVID-19, and those of us who live in this epicenter are facing extremely difficult decisions,” Matthews said.

At its December 31 meeting, the school board also discussed a zero tolerance policy for parents and employees who are found to have lied on the district’s COVID-19 screening app. Matthews disclosed that district officials had confirmed that one parent and two employees had not reported accurately on the app, which requires self-reporting on any interactions that occur outside a family, travel outside the state, and exposure to anyone with COVID-19. Matthews said parents had been warned that another misrepresentation would result in their children being relegated to distance learning the rest of the school year, while employees would face disciplinary action.

“What we have now is a one-strike policy, really,” said school board member Jennifer Cochran. “It’s not a zero tolerance policy, correct?”

The board agreed that any parent found intentionally reporting inaccurately on the app would be required to keep their children in distance learning the remainder of the year.

“I think I would support, and I mean this with full compassion and love, that if someone knowingly marks that inaccurately, that there shouldn’t be a second chance,” said board member Jason Boxer. “That’s what zero tolerance would mean, to me. If you are knowingly sending someone who has been exposed or has been out of state — you’ll still be in our classrooms, and we will still be so happy that you are there, you’ll just be doing it remotely.”

At that meeting, Matthews argued for a delay to in-person instruction until at least mid-January. He said the Beach Cities Health District had recommended a delay, and noted that MBUSD’s COVID-19 infection rates had been on par with the entire community’s.

“We try to compare our numbers versus the Manhattan Beach population numbers, and what we find is that 1.2 percent of our population who are on campus is the exact same as the 1.2 percent that [have tested positive for COVID-19] here in Manhattan Beach,” Matthews said. “There’s a million ways to interpret data, but for me what it says is that we are subject to the same rate of infection as Manhattan Beach is. It’s not because our schools are open; it’s because we live in a community and in a state and that has COVID infection rates.”

Those numbers have worsened. Manhattan Beach registered 101 new cases from January 4 to 10, marking a 409 case increase since the post-Thanksgiving spike began November 30 and bringing the total to 938 cases since the pandemic began.

Local hospitals have reported zero to 1 percent ICU capacity over the past three weeks. Boxer said this was a key consideration.

“It’s not immaterial to me that our ICU capacity is so low…I fear that the access of hospitals sort of burst that bubble for us,” Boxer said.

Board member Cathey Graves was the lone dissenting vote at that meeting, arguing for a January 5 return to in-person instruction.

“Frankly I don’t see any difference,” Graves said. “I think the rates are going to be high now, I think they’re going to be high on the 19th. Our hospitals are going to be in a similar situation; I don’t know that the picture is going to be much different. But I do know that over the last several months, we have discovered that in-school spread is rare when proper precautions are taken.”

Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association president Shawn Chen, in an interview, supported a later start date.

“You have a wider context to consider,” Chen said. “Schools are not these hermetically-sealed places. A community surrounds them, and our community is in crisis. So I really don’t see the need to bring people on campuses in that circumstance.”

The school board was scheduled to revisit the issue of reopening at its January 13 meeting. ER


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