Jen Ezpeleta

MBUSD will welcome back first special ed students

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by Mark McDermott 

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District hopes to begin welcoming a few special education students back to its schools next week, a beginning of what district leaders cautiously hope will be a gradual but full return to in-person learning over the coming months. 

After the plan was unanimously approved at the October 7 school board meeting, the district on Monday began performing assessment of high needs students, who are the first students allowed to return to classrooms under state and county COVID-19 guidelines. Many of those students will begin actual classroom instruction in coming weeks, once needs are identified and prioritized and — in keeping with LA County Health Department guidelines — cohorts of no more than 12 students are established. 

The return of some special education students, known as a “high needs hybrid” model because it combines in-person and distance learning, is the second phase of a five phase plan adopted by the school board in July that begins with distance learning and ends with full return classroom learning for all students. 

At last week’s board meeting, Superintendent Mike Matthews said the use of cohorts is central to reopening plans. With teachers, those cohorts can number as many as 14. 

“Cohorts are a stable group of no more than 14 individuals and a supervisor [who] must stay together for activities and avoid contact. This is what we have been doing with our child care program and with our athletics program,” Matthews said. “It’s what we will be doing with our high needs hybrid as we move forward. The idea is very simple: if there is any kind of contamination, whether it’s by an unknown condition or by a COVID case, we know exactly who has potentially been exposed. And we can suspend that group of students from being on campus until we are convinced that it’s safe for everyone to return…This is all part of our COVID management plan.” 

Matthews said such an incident has already occurred when a student came to school from a household where there’d been a sickness; everyone in the household was tested, found negative, and the cohort was eventually able to return to campus. 

According to County guidelines regarding the current return of high needs students, no more than 10 percent of any school’s population will be allowed on campus at a given time. This amounts to about 600 students at MBUSD. Any campus on which three students test positive for COVID-19 in a two period could be subject to a full return to distance learning. 

“They have the option to shut the entire school down until they consider it safe to come back,” Matthews said. “And so we have these protocols in place, and it’s all based on cohorts.” 

Matthews said that a big part of the challenge in bringing the first wave of high needs students back to school will be deciding who will be able to come and who won’t, in part because of the cohort limitation. 

“A lot of our special education students have more than 12 students in their class,” he said. “And so we have to make a determination about how we do that —  to make those priorities and those choices will be very difficult. But those are the rules the County has for us, and there’s no getting around those rules.” 

The district has faced an outpouring of frustration from parents, especially those of high needs children who have struggled with distance learning. A meeting of the Special Education Advisory Committee on September 22 drew over 100 parents via Zoom, many of whom shared distressing stories of children refusing to engage with distance learning, all who worried that their kids were losing an entire year of education at a developmentally crucial time. Many of those concerns spilled over into the September 23 school board meeting, at which Matthews and the school board vowed to hasten the students’ return to in-person learning. 

At issue was the perception that MBUSD was behind other districts. LA County in early September announced high needs students would be able to return, so long as district’s could follow new COVID-19 guidelines, by September 14. While few districts were able to have students in classrooms by that date, nearby Redondo Beach Unified School District did indeed bring cohorts of high needs kids back to schools by late September. 

The issue has continued to fester in Manhattan Beach. Last week, the City Council —  which has no direct involvement in schools —  spent more than an hour talking about the district’s handling of school reopenings. On NextDoor, the issue has inspired thousands of comments, most overwhelmingly negative towards MBUSD. And last week over 300 people tuned in to the school board meeting, events which in normal times generally attract the attention of maybe a dozen people outside school employees. 

The board also received dozens of online comments, as many from parents of general education students as those from special education parents, nearly all expressing frustration and asking for MBUSD to expedite a return to classroom learning. 

“Our children deserve to be in school,” wrote Amy Digiaro. “MBUSD should have been the first district to submit waivers. Plexiglass should have been ordered in June. Why is our school board sitting on the sidelines and failing our children? Families are racing to the private sector for education and this will lead to declining enrollment and eventually housing prices will go down. Our city needs to stand up for children.” 

“We are among the many families considering a move from Manhattan Beach so our middle school and high school aged children can return to learning in person,” wrote Celeste Gebhardt. “MBUSD should absolutely be petitioning the county for in person learning and replace any teachers who are unwilling or unable to teach on site….This school board, superintendent and union need to start putting the needs of our children above their differences, and do so immediately before we all lose faith and leave.” 

“Science no longer supports the closing of schools,” wrote Julie Zebrowski. “We now know that school aged children tolerate the virus very well and are not the main drivers. The harmful psychological, emotional, academic, physical, social and developmental effects of this lockdown and isolation far outweigh the risks of Covid….It is child abuse to have our kids on screens all day, unable to be physically present and active in the MBUSD schools. Our kids are the victims of an ugly political battle.”

But several teachers wrote to urge caution. SDC teacher Ruth Ahmed said that “this will not be a return to normal” because special needs students will come back to see their instructors clad in “daunting protective gear” and that despite precautions little could truly be done to contain the risks since so many students have contact with multiple other adults outside their family bubble. She wrote the situation leaves teachers facing an impossible choice. 

“I love my students, and I look forward to continuing to provide them the best education possible in Manhattan Beach for many years to come,” she said. “I believe the only way to guarantee this is to proceed with due caution, prioritizing safety over speed, and our ability to provide for our students in the long term. I do not know how the nature of education will change over the course of this pandemic, but one thing is certain: I cannot teach from the grave.” 

The Manhattan Beach Teachers Association on October 5 came to an agreement to return. The union has been the object of some scorn among parents who believe teachers are responsible for delays. 

Board member Sally Austin Peel asked for clarification regarding union negotiations. 

“I think there’s been a lot of misinformation in our community about what’s happening right now,” Austin Peel said. “And there’s so much concern on the part of parents, with absolute reason…Parents are very concerned about their childrens’ emotional well being and mental health and their social connections and physical health.  But some of the information that’s being shared isn’t accurate.” 

Matthews disputed the notion that teachers are responsible for any delay. He said discussions with the union have been ongoing since this summer and resulted in an agreement which will benefit everyone. 

“It’s been complicated work, but we have what we regard as some outstanding procedures that will provide great services for our students while doing everything to keep our employees safe, as well,” he said. 

Deputy Superintendent Dawnalyn Murakawa Leopard said the dialogue will also provide guidance in the broader reopening of schools. 

“I think that the partnership that we’ve had with the unions and working through and to make sure that we have really sound, well thought through procedures in place will help us to make sure that as we open and as we implement, we really have a great roadmap and a really strong path forward that helps us to know exactly what to do and how to do it in a way that maximizes everyone’s safety,” she said. 

Assistant Superintendent Irene Gonzalez Castillo outlined the work that has been underway to welcome students back, everything from moving furniture to allow social distancing to preparing assessments to teachers taking photographs of the altered classrooms so their students can understand they will not be returning to the same classroom they left last year. She also noted that teachers will still be teaching via distance learning even as in-person instruction begins. 

“It’s important to know that our providers, at the same time while they are doing this, they’re also providing services through distance learning, attending IEP [meetings], and all their other duties that they typically would have,” she said.

Board member Karen Komatinsky suggested the district obtain outside help to make preparations, although much of the assessment work by its nature must be conducted by the teachers who will be instructing these specific students. 

“If you just do the rough math of 600 kids, you’re talking hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Komatinsky said. 

The hope is that an initial group of 35 to 40 students could be back in school by October 19 and that by November enough high needs students will be back to meet the 10 percent limit districtwide. 

Matthews also outlined the waiver process that LA County began on October 5 for schools to apply for early opening of TK-2, or transitional kindergarten through second grade. Matthews said the City of Manhattan Beach had agreed to provide letters of recommendation. Although he indicated the district was hopeful it could apply for such a waiver and said negotiations with MBTA for these grades should be completed by next week, Matthews also didn’t paint a very optimistic picture. Only six schools per LA Supervisor district will be approved per week, he noted, and priority will be given to schools 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 LA County. 

“We will always be at the end of the line on that, so that makes it challenging,” he said. 

Matthews did sound one note of optimism in that Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the director of the LA County Department of Public Health, has given indications that all elementary students could be allowed back in school in November. 

“We are all guessing,” Matthews said. “My guess has always been that the County is aiming for November…I believe that could very well happen.” 

He did also note, however, that the state requirement for school reopening is that a county show an average of below 7 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people for two weeks straight. LA County actually went up last week, from 7.3 to 7.4. 

Matthews also said that secondary schools’ reopening almost certainly will not reopen this calendar year because the key cog in state and county guidelines —  the use of cohorts — simply will not work in secondary schools. 

“There has been no talk of a date for when secondary schools are going to be considered,” Matthews said. “We saw a lot of public comments about that, too. It’s not even on the radar, and one of the giant reasons for that is the fact that we’ve been talking about school cohorts as being the core of the plan to bring students back…You just don’t walk around secondary schools from first to second to third period seeing the same group of kids. It can never be done that way.” 

“That being said…they could come out tomorrow with a decision that we’re gonna start high schools, too. I don’t know, but that would be way out of the blue.” ER 

 

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