Pandemic, budget cuts a one, two punch to Beach City schools struggling to reopen

Members of the Redondo Union High Class of 2020 introduce a new graduation tradition by tossing their bodies rather than their mortarboards in the air. Photo by JP Cordero

Staggered schedules? Masks in class? South Bay school districts prepare to reopen in the fall

Lydia Johnson wonders what school will look like during a passing period, the time between classes when hundreds of kids flood staircases and halls. Malcolm Cutler doesn’t think it’s fair to ask teachers to sanitize an entire room in between every class. And Jordan Bailey has no idea how group projects or studying with friends would work under strict social distancing rules.

“It’s hard, because when you’re at school, you want to sit together with your friends and talk about assignments. If you’re sitting at the library, it would be hard to share notes. What are you going to do, sit six feet away and yell to the person, ‘Hey what’d you get for number one?’” Bailey said. “If you look around, people already seem like they’re almost over the social distancing rules. I don’t think kids will follow them.”

The students, all juniors at Mira Costa High School, are not alone in their head-scratching uncertainty. Districts in the South Bay and across the country are pondering how to reopen classrooms in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. Schools, which represent the single largest expenditure in most state budgets and form the most visible presence of government in everyday life, are also proving the most complex facet of society to adjust to the age of COVID-19.

The MBUSD Board of Education holds a Zoom meeting. Like other government agencies, the school board has been forced to hold its meetings remotely. Capture by JP Cordero

It’s been nearly three months since schools across California closed their doors to in-person instruction and switched to a distance learning model. In the coming weeks, districts will be figuring out what a return to school in the fall will look like. The shape of school to come will depend on forces beyond the districts’s control, including a state budget buffeted by COVID-19 that could reduce school spending just when more funds are needed, and a virus that remains mostly a mystery to scientists and for which a vaccine or reliable treatment could be more than a year in the future. In the meantime, districts are reaching out to students, parents and educators, but it’s not clear that these groups will all want the same thing; in some cases, their interests may be opposed.

“My dad has kidney disease, he has heart disease, he has heart failure. He lives at his house in Manhattan Beach with my 96-year-old grandmother. I go over there several times a week to bring them dinner, to make them food, to help them with things they need help with. And if I have a bunch of kids who are self-spreaders, then I’m bringing that in to them,” said Shawn Chen, an English teacher at Mira Costa and the president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association. “Currently, I’m quarantined, I’m not getting any germs. If I go anywhere, it’s my house, or their house. So if I’m hanging around 250 kids all week, and they’re sticking their gum under their desk and touching papers that I’m bringing in, I could kill my dad.”

Opening a campus for traditional in-person instruction is only possible if the Los Angeles County has reached Phase Three of its reopening plan, which local officials have said could happen as soon as Friday. The next phase, in which large gatherings like concerts and professional sporting events with fans are allowed to resume, is still at least several months away.

Mary Clare Powell, one of the student board members on the MBUSD Board of Education, holds up a t-shirt commemorating the Class of 2020, whose senior year has been upended by the coronavirus. Capture by JP Cordero

The closures instituted by authorities have slowed the rate of spread of the coronavirus by limiting the number of people each person interacts with, limiting the transmission by people who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic and who may not be quarantining. A study published Monday in the journal Nature by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory concluded that the measures taken in the United States prevented as many as 60 million COVID-19 infections. Before the county’s stay-at-home orders began in mid March, each infected person was responsible for about 3.5 additional cases of COVID-19; last month, that number dropped below one. This has prevented the failures of overburdened medical systems that occurred in other parts of the world, but the nature of the coronavirus has not changed, and another outbreak is possible. Some doctors have warned of an increased danger in the fall, when COVID-19 would be circulating along with seasonal influenza, and it is possible that authorities could order the county to return to the second stage.

Across the country, there is significant concern among both parents and educators about returning to campus. One poll found that one in five teachers would not be returning for on-campus instruction. Another found that as many as 60 percent of parents would continue with distance learning if a vaccine is not available by the fall.

Concern may be lower in the Beach Cities, which like other predominantly white and wealthy areas have had relatively low death rates from COVID-19. (Nationally, a black person is three times more likely to know someone who has died of COVID-19 than a white person.) A poll of parents in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District found that 62 percent were “confident” about sending their children back to school in the fall. Nineteen percent said they thought they would return but were uncomfortable with the prospect, while 11 percent said they would be remaining in distance learning. Eight percent were uncertain.

Just as parts of the country have chafed at the closures of gyms and restaurants, some South Bay parents wonder whether restrictions on schools reopening are necessary. Superintendent Mike Matthews of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District said in an online meeting Monday that “one of the most common emails” he receives from parents is one questioning the need for any reopening restrictions at all, given that children appear to be less at risk from the virus.

Matthews said that there is “not a single entity” in the state of California that is recommending a blanket return to pre-pandemic conditions.

“One of the questions we get again and again is, why don’t we just open? Why don’t we ignore the California Department of [Public] Health guidelines? Well, we’re going to follow them,” Matthews said.

Although children currently appear to die and require hospitalization from COVID-19 at vastly lower rates than older adults, they are not the only ones on school campuses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “children with COVID-19 may have only mild symptoms. However, they can still pass this virus on to others who may be at higher risk, including older adults and people who have serious underlying medical conditions.” Those higher-risk categories include some of the teachers, custodians, administrators, and support personnel who, in normal times, are on campus every day, as well as parents and grandparents at home.

Guidelines from state and local authorities have emerged over the past two weeks, but the decisions will remain local ones, and some South Bay superintendents have openly criticized them. That includes criticism of recommendations from the Los Angeles County Office of Education, released late last month.

Provided that in-campus instruction is permitted by local public health authorities, the LACOE guidelines suggest districts should ensure they can “control interactions,” including in hallways, implement temperature checks and sanitizing measures, accommodate physical distancing, and have enough staff to monitor student health.

Natalie Collicut is a Mira Costa junior who describes herself as “one of those kids who just loves being on campus.” She said “the ideal situation is everything going back to normal.” But she recognizes that controlling the behavior of all the kids on a campus at its usual occupancy would be a challenge.

“I think it will definitely be a challenge, because there’s just so many students on campus. Everybody wants to see their friends. It will be really hard trying to monitor all the students,” Collicut said.

Officials in some districts have also pushed back. A letter signed by Superintendent Pat Escalante of the Hermosa Beach City School District, Superintendent Alex Cherniss of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District and nine other district leaders in Southern California described the county’s guidelines as “unattainable and unrealistic” and said they will “drastically inhibit school district’s ability to reopen.”

In an interview, Escalante said that any shortcomings in the county’s recommendations were understandable, given the “overwhelming number of considerations and logistical challenges that each district is going to face.” She said she has been speaking with about a dozen other superintendents in the area, and that they have been sharing ideas about how to best approach the coming school year. 

“There are some real consistencies that are starting to emerge. It seems very, very likely that all districts are going to offer some sort of distance learning track for the coming school year. And then there will be some staggered options,” Escalante said.

The county’s guidelines also recommended face coverings be worn by all students and teachers. Masks and coverings, while unlikely to prevent the wearer from getting sick, are thought to make it less likely that an infected person will spread the virus to others. Masks  remain a component of public health orders even as more types of businesses are allowed to reopen. Some medical professionals, though, said that districts mandating masks in schools could create its own issues.

“Our concern is that recently issued guidelines for schools reopening in California are not realistic or even developmentally appropriate for children,” Dr. Alice Kuo, president of the Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a statement issued last week. She urged the development of guidelines that accounted for differences among age groups, arguing that having young children wear a face covering throughout the day could “hinder language and socio-emotional development, particularly for young children.”

Redondo Union High graduates celebrate aboard Disappearance. Michaela Boesen, Brooke Adams-Grenier, Ajay Dalal, Caitlyn Kyle, Alberto del Rosario, Haley Loren, Matthew Samy, Symphony Muzik, and Bryce Marcon. Photo by Jp Cordero

On Monday, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond released “Stronger Together,” the California Department of Education’s guidelines for reopening the state’s public schools. Like the guidance from the county, it contains recommendations, not requirements. But it also suggests structuring on-campus instruction in a way that allows for everyone to maintain six feet of social distance, for both students and teachers to wear face coverings, and for districts to continue to provide some sort of distance learning option. In the event that one person on campus were to test positive, the entire school would be closed for two weeks.

“We recognize that COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on everything that we know and recognize about education,” Thurmond said Monday.

The state guidelines provide several examples of models districts could adopt, all of which would minimize the number of students on campus at a given time and make it easier to maintain distance among students and school employees: a “two-day” model, in which a group of students attends school for two days each week, while another group attends on two different days, with Fridays reserved for distance learning and teacher planning; an “A/B” model, in which a group of students attends school for four days, then does a week of distance learning while the other group comes to campus, with Fridays again reserved; and a staggered schedule model, in which different groups of students would spend a part of each day on campus.

Matthews said Monday that the “staggered schedule” model was less likely for MBUSD, because of the difficulties associated with sanitizing classrooms in between cohorts. But all of them present challenges, including how they will impact childcare for working families. He said the district is likely to settle on a schedule by late July.

Some parents have suggested that, with limited space, spots on campus should be reserved for younger students, who are less able to look after themselves. In a letter submitted to the Hermosa school board last month, parent Melinda Green described a grueling routine in which both she and her husband were continuing to work full time while managing classwork for their two school-age children and in-home daycare for another. Their six-year-old daughter was complaining of missing her friends, while their eight-year-old son needed constant supervision with assignments. She asked for a return to “full-time class instruction” for the coming year.

“The bottom line is, my husband and I are in the position of teaching second grade, a task we are not qualified for, nor do we have time to do,” Green wrote. 

The hybrid models are intended to balance educational quality and public health. They are less able to account for the chats that occur while grabbing books from a locker or the games kids play at recess. Bailey, the junior who wondered about how students would study together, proposed another alternative for high schoolers, one in which students would be on campus one day per week, by grade level. Freshmen could come on Mondays, sophomores on Tuesdays, and so on. She acknowledged that it would be challenging to coordinate the classes that contain students from multiple grade levels, but said that it would better enable the critical socialization that school provides.

“As a senior, or as someone going into my senior year, I want to sit in the senior quad with my friends, I want to see my favorite teachers. I want to do senior prank day. I want to do all of those things even if there’s fewer people there,” she said. 

Any of the options would have to be approved by teachers’ bargaining units, and scheduling is likely only the beginning of the changes reopening will require. A hybrid learning model would upend what a classroom looks like. What the L.A. County’s guidelines describe as a “typical 960-square foot classroom,” could hold a teacher and between 12 and 16 students, about half the number that are inside many classes in schools in the South Bay and elsewhere in California. In the MBUSD, 30 teachers were given pink slips before the first case of coronavirus was even reported in the county. Some parents have taken to social media in frustration at the prospect of reopening school with fewer teachers, while others have suggested that faculty hold classes outdoors or in gymnasiums.

“All of these people are saying, ‘Start school because kids don’t get [distance learning], and if teachers don’t like it, they can teach outside.’ Okay, have you ever tried to teach Shakespeare through a megaphone?” Chen said.

By the end of the month, districts must finalize their budgets for the 2020-21 school year. The Hermosa Beach City School District is projecting a state funding decline of 7.9 percent. (The district will be discussing this budget in a meeting Wednesday evening, after press time for this article.) More money, or less, could be available as the start of classes draws nearer, depending on what comes from state tax returns, the due date for which was delayed from April 15 to July 15 because of the pandemic.

While the final figures remain uncertain, the millions of job losses suggest a significant decline in state receipts. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised May budget forecasted a deficit of tens of billions of dollars. He has suggested painful cuts every sector, including education. The state Senate and Assembly have recently responded by pushing a budget of their own, which acknowledges the downturn, but assumes that some measure of federal funding will be available to offset the loss of state money. In the event it does not arrive, cuts would have to come later, in October.

Last week, Newsom suggested that the state could pay for personal protective equipment needed by schools, which is likely to be a huge, additional expense, but the details remain uncertain. All are eagerly eying a new state budget proposal Newsom is set to release on Monday. Meanwhile, the federal HEROES Act, which among other things would provide money to state and local governments whose budgets have been decimated by the coronavirus, has passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but not the Republican-controlled Senate. 

“I don’t think anyone expects the House package to pass the Senate as is,” Sen. Ben Allen, who represents the South Bay. “But even if something half the size were to be passed, that would still go a long way toward providing the necessary funds to shore up our state budget.” 

Mira Costa junior Cia Conley said she has been watching the shifting attitudes about the coronavirus and the response it merits. Schools, she suggested, are just one more way in which people are trying to figure out how to make things “normal” again.

“A few weeks ago I didn’t think it was realistic that we would go back to school in the fall. But now there are tons of restaurants open and people eating inside them,” she said. She was complimentary of how her teachers had adjusted to distance learning, but is eager to return to campus. She has no illusions that it will be just like it was before. “Society is going to change. I mean, there are glass shields in front of cash registers now. Social distancing is going to be a relevant thing for a while.” ER


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Written by: Kevin Cody

Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com

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