Woolsey Fire Blueprint Prepares Malibu Students for Distance Learning

Malibu High School students participate in “class color day” during virtual spirit week.

On March 12, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District schools were operating operating as normal, but behind the scenes, staff was already preparing for changes due to COVID-19.

Then, on Friday, March 13, a “dismissal” was implemented for all SMMUSD schools—students were advised not to attend school, educators arrived as normal in preparation for a possible closure.

The following Monday, March 16, an emergency board of education meeting led to the approval of closures for all SMMUSD schools with a reopen date of April 20, including a two-week spring break. 

And on March 31, it was out of the district’s hands: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said, “it currently appears that our students will not be able to return to school campuses before the end of the year.” He suggested schools prepare curriculum to support the distance learning model. 

Locally, Malibu High School Principal Patrick Miller is confident in his staff.

“Things definitely were changing quickly and I am so impressed with how our teachers and team have worked to adjust and adapt day by day,” he said in an email to The Malibu Times. “We started preparing as a staff for the shift to distance learning on Tuesday, March 10, and by Monday the 16th we had implemented it.”

Over at Malibu Elementary (MES), fifth grade teacher Nancy Levy said she and fellow teacher Jill Matthews had sent their students home with distance-learning materials on March 12, the day before the dismissal occurred. While students were at home, the teachers were prepping three weeks’ worth of lessons and materials, enough to last through spring break starting April 6.

With this preparation time, Levy said, “We really didn’t miss a beat.”

Matthews said she was “impressed” by her students and said they were demonstrating great responsibility with their learning.

The educators The Malibu Times spoke with, echoing previous remarks made by Board of Education Member Craig Foster, said their experience during the Woolsey Fire helped inform their distance learning plans.

Miller said students in grades 6-12 had already received Chromebook laptops and that teachers were already utilizing Google Classroom—one of several applications educators use to communicate with students—throughout the 2019-20 school year.

“Beyond the technical part, I truly think the experience with the fire for our students, families and staff taught us all to be flexible, to adapt, to persevere … This time, I personally think there is a lot less raw emotion involved, and everyone understands this is the reality for the entire world and we’re all just doing the best we can,” he explained.

At MES, parents/guardians picked up hard copies of materials on March 16. These materials, along with digital learning, cover subjects such as English, math, social studies, science, art and more. Districtwide, kindergarten through second grade students are directed to study each subject for approximately 10 minutes per day. Third through fifth grade students should study 20 minutes per subject per day.

“Going forward, most instructions will need to be online as we cannot go back to school for extended preparation and libraries are closed,” Levy said. “This will be more of a challenge in the younger grades.”

At MHS, based on feedback from parents, students and faculty, distance learning has been sectioned into a block schedule, meaning subjects are scheduled for specific days rather than every day. 

“It is important to note that distance learning is not a minute-for-minute replacement of the school day,” a distance learning plan shared with The Malibu Times stated. “Rather, it is an altered and abbreviated schedule that reflects the realities of school closures, social-distancing, the Safer at Home order and other emergency orders intended for our safety and well-being.”

Online screen time for students is capped around three hours, included in a total of four to five hours of learning per weekday.

For Malibu juniors and seniors in the district, COVID-19 is an added stress to a time full of exams, applications and crucial decisions.

MHS College and Career Counselor Linh Nguyen, who went on maternity leave as school closures were announced, said she is still in touch with the Sharks community.

“We have established a Google Classroom where we have posted important mental, academic and college related resources and updates,” she said in an email, adding that she has reached out to both classes to support and guide their next steps.

“I feel for our students, as they navigate through this semester. Distant learning isn’t new to us, since we implemented it last year with the fires. I had many students see me after the fire for support, as I lost my home, too, in the fire,” Nguyen mused. “I remind them we are all in this together and to keep looking forward.”