Manhattan Beach Unified prepares for a full reopening of schools
Back to school never felt quite like this before. Parents with kids attending Manhattan Beach Unified School District have received a flurry of messages from the district in the last week, both full of anticipation and long outlines of what will be required as the district prepares for its day of school next Wednesday.
On top of one notice, in large type, was a message likely intended to calm nerves as the nation and world experiences another surge in COVID-19 cases. “We remain true to our plans to fully reopen in person on August 25,” the message read.
All MBUSD campuses will return to schedules identical to those in place before the pandemic arrived in March of last year. And while students will have access to all the resources they had before COVID-19 interrupted in-person instruction, classrooms won’t look the same. Masks will be required indoors, per Los Angeles County Department of Public Health direction. Symptom screening and tracking measures will be in place for all students. Social distancing will be encouraged but not required, and masks will not be required outdoors on campuses. Additionally, all meetings, including parent conferences, Individualized Education Plan consultations, staff meetings and back to school nights will be held virtually.
But Superintendent John Bowes said that the key point beyond any number of guidelines is that finally students will be together, and that it itself will make this return to school something special.
“The pandemic, I think, made many of us realize we shouldn’t take anything for granted,” said Bowes. “And when we think about schooling, in-person is always preferable. I think Manhattan Beach did an excellent job with distance learning, but in-person is always better. With that comes those relationships, the lifelong friends you make along the way in elementary, middle school, and high school, and much of that was interrupted.”
Bowes took the helm of MBUSD just this month. He served as superintendent at Davis Joint Unified School District the previous five years, and so also experienced the challenges schools faced during the pandemic school year.
“I think a central message that I provided during the pandemic was that just because we are apart does not mean we have to be alone,” Bowes said. “I know many people found themselves feeling alone or isolated and a lot of good work during distance learning went into addressing that, but I don’t think we should take for granted that students won’t need help coming back to school. Our staff is ready to address that and to help our students.”
At Mira Costa High School, newly appointed Principal Karina Gerger is recognizing the uniqueness of the occasion with the launching of a new tradition — the “Mira Costa Senior Sunrise,” in which students will gather at the football field at 6:15 a.m. next Wednesday for music, speakers, treats, and a class photo.
That day, Bowes said, should offer some reassuring regularity, but also some key differences.
“We are thrilled to be able to offer full time instruction and a return to the 2019-2020 school year bell schedules,” he said. “Students will be familiar with an awful lot of what they’ll encounter on the first day. And at the same time, some things are going to be different.”
Bowes has already sent two emails to parents, the second one outlining some of those differences.
“As school begins, we will request that families provide information about their students’ vaccination status (if they are eligible to receive a vaccine); please watch for further information about this process,” Bowes wrote. “Prior to the start of school, we ask that every student seek screening testing, regardless of vaccination status.”
Eligible students are not required to be vaccinated, although a further discussion of vaccination requirements was expected to take place at Wednesday night’s Board of Education meeting. But all teachers and staff will be required to either be vaccinated or submit to weekly tests in accordance with public health order issued by Governor Gavin Newsom last week.
“We think this is the right thing to do,” Newsom said at a press conference last week announcing the order which gives employees until Oct. 15 to comply. “We think this is a sustainable way to keep our schools open and to address the No. 1 anxiety that parents like myself have for young children — and that is knowing that the schools are doing everything in their power to keep our kids safe.”
Bowes said MBUSD is likewise taking every measure possible to ensure safety, including changes to the classrooms ventilations systems.
“All the ventilation systems have been inspected, filters changed, and where we could, upgraded to the Merv 13 high quality filter,” he said. “We’ve got the HEPA filters installed in all classrooms and offices.”
The beginning of this school year also represents a homecoing of sorts for Bowes, who prior to his time in Davis served as an assistant superintendent in Palos Verdes and 24 years within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“Like a lot of people, the pandemic really put a finer point on the value of being near family and the need to be near family, especially aging relatives and your kids, ” Bowes said. “So having been gone five years and missed an awful lot of important family events, that was a contributing factor to coming back.”
His wife, Cheryl, started college as the couple’s kids were finishing college and is going to be a senior at UCLA this fall.
“We wanted to be sure we could stay together and not be apart, and when I read the leadership profile for Manhattan Beach Unified, it sounded like a fantastic match,” Bowes said.
School board president Jen Fenton has thus far been impressed.
“Within his first week, Dr. Bowes hit the ground running,” she said. “He met with cabinet, principals, administrators, and other MBUSD staff. He sent two newsletters with important information to parents, as well as several emails to all district employees, and has meticulously been preparing for school openings next week. It’s been a great start.” ER