Young Students Back in Classrooms April 12

A PSA posted on the wall of a school in the Santa Monica-Malibu School District tells kids to “keep one surfboard apart” to maintain social distance as they return to classrooms this spring.

“365 days ago,” Patrick Miller, Malibu High School’s principal, tweeted on Friday, March 12, 2021. Miller’s post was accompanied by a screenshot of his own announcement one year earlier that his school would remain closed, along with the rest of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD), as a precaution against the coronavirus. “So proud of our students, families, staff, and teachers who have navigated schooling and many other challenges during this pandemic. They have and continue to make the best of a bad situation. Stay together Malibu!”

At the time of the closure, Miller’s announcement predicted that schools would return by April 20, 2020. That did not happen. Spring bled into summer, summer into fall; still, the coronavirus kept classrooms closed. It was only on March 11, 2021, that SMMUSD officials announced that its TK (transitional kindergarten) through fifth graders could return—finally, cautiously, and only part-time—in person. 

Miller’s students still have to wait. “[High school] classes will stay virtual at least until spring break,” he said in a recent interview with The Malibu Times. “After spring break, we will see what the direction is.”

For now, only the youngest Malibuites will be headed back to their classrooms officially on the week of April 12. 

The return could take one of a few different “hybrid” forms, according to an SMMUSD press release. Options range from a half-day schedule where students come in four days a week for 2.5 hours in the afternoon, to splitting the student body in half with each half coming in for two full days per week. Each elementary school will choose the hybrid model suited to their unique needs, with the school principals conveying scheduling information directly to their respective parents. 

Those hybrid models might change as county caseloads decrease, the press release stated. “For the first time since the State of California established the Blueprint for a Safer Economy framework last August, LA County is poised to move from the most restrictive purple tier and enter the red tier,” the press release said, referencing the color-coded tier system that has determined school’s ability to reopen on a county-by-county basis. 

The district’s statement said staff was working to enable the return of older students with a hybrid model of learning and that secondary school principals like Miller would be providing more information in the near future. 

Los Angeles County moved from purple tier (“widespread risk”) to red tier (“substantial risk”) on Monday, but Miller warned that the reopening guidelines for red tier schools were still very restrictive, so much so that they “make it nearly impossible” to do a “meaningful reopening.” Miller said that while nearby Las Virgenes Unified School District was the first to resume, its model was still limited. According to Miller, that school district would be doing three-and-a-half in-person days over a nine-day period. 

“People read the headline that says schools have reopened, but I always encourage them to read the fine print,” Miller said. “There’s not a single public high school that has resumed. The guidelines still make it very challenging to do reopening in any meaningful way.

“One of our main drivers is the quality of instruction, ensuring that we’re preserving that sacred teacher-student interaction, not adding loads of asynchronous work,” he continued. “So it’s very difficult, very hard.” 

Miller added that Malibu High would be bringing students back to campus on certain afternoons for 90-minute “enrichment” workshops, which meant time socializing with small groups of peers from a distance, getting support from teachers and enjoying physical activity. He said those enrichment activities would continue or increase after spring break, noting that they were not meant to be replacements for distance learning. 

A joint press release from Dr. Mark Kelly, SMMUSD’s assistant superintendent of human resources, and Sarah Braff, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association (SMMCTA), shared last week that the local teacher’s union reached an agreement to head back to school in-person earlier than originally planned, citing “rapidly improved case rates, the availability of vaccinations for educators and changes to the reopening protocols for schools.” 

Miller praised the teachers’ union’s flexibility throughout the year, estimating that the district has so far had nine previous agreements with them. 

“As each kind of changing dynamic has occurred in the past year, we have been able to work with all in our community to find a way to make it work,” Miller said. “That’s kind of been our reality.”

One stipulation of the union agreement is that the district will contract with an industrial hygienist to assess HVAC upgrades and ventilation and will implement a system for reporting COVID-safety protocol violations and concerns. 

These measures would be in addition to those already in the safety plan SMMUSD was required to submit to government agencies before reopening, which the district said it had done on Monday, March 1. Posted online, the 106-page safety plan includes measures such as providing all employees face masks at no cost to be worn at all times and medical-grade face masks, also at no-cost, to employees caring for sick children or in contact with children who have medical conditions that inhibit them wearing their own face masks. The plan also describes periodic inspections, regular cleaning and disinfections in all rooms, physical distancing, staggered attendance and many other safety measures. 

SMMUSD will continue to allow students who want to remain learning completely from home to do so, though they may not be able to stay with their current teachers depending on staffing needs. 

“This is a challenge for any hybrid model, and administration and teachers will be working together to achieve this goal to the fullest extent possible. We recognize the interest of parents and students to stay connected to their current teacher and classmates,” the SMMUSD press release said.