August 19 Looms for Back to School

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Ben Drati summed up the frustration of readying the return to classrooms Aug. 19 while Los Angeles County is experiencing a new surge of COVID-19 infections. The school district head reiterated a phrase he attributed to Senator Ben Allen that he claimed perfectly captures the ever-changing protocols used to operate a safe and healthy environment for children: “This whole thing is really a test on everybody’s tolerance for ambiguity.”

Drati and Allen hosted a webinar last Tuesday evening, Aug. 3, in an effort to clear up as much ambiguity as possible before an Aug. 6 deadline for parents to decide whether to send their children back to campuses for in-person instruction or choose independent study. Participants included local UCLA doctors specializing in immunology and virology. SMMUSD staff were also on hand to describe the rigorous safety protocols utilized to keep infections at bay. 

Drati said the district coordinates policy with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control. Then SMMUSD Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton detailed the daily cleaning and disinfection procedures implemented and the continued push toward hand hygiene and hand washing. 

“We have provided updated sinks and portable sinks across the district so there are multiple opportunities for students to wash their hands,” the COO said. Upton also described increased ventilation implemented throughout the district. 

“What we’re looking at is a maximum amount of exchange air, which is bringing outdoor air inside and transferring the inside air outside, but also the return air—the air that’s in the room—that it is properly filtered. We’ve added MERV-13 filters to our air systems. We’ve brought in industrial air scrubbers. The goal is to get two to three air exchanges per hour and most every space we’re hitting is somewhere between six and 10 air exchanges an hour.” Five different campuses in the district got air conditioning upgrades; however, Drati emphasized for those returning to in-person classes, outdoor learning and activities will be encouraged at least 50 percent of the time.

The district will continue its daily screening of all students and adults before coming to campus that began when in-person education resumed last spring. Campus visits were highly discouraged unless picking up a sick child. Any exposure to COVID-19 would result in isolation, contact tracing and home quarantine for 10 days from last exposure. Masks would be required at all times indoors except while eating or for those with a medical condition. Served lunches will continue to be prepackaged rather than buffet style. 

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According to the district, families with athletes and performers often choose in-person learning, but with the recent rise in COVID-19 case numbers, protocols and testing requirements could change for students who have close contact with others. Drati said more information would be coming soon, asking parents to “be patient with us.”

Under California law—Assembly Bill 130—there is the option for independent study when in-person instruction can put a student’s health at risk. 

Isaac Burgess, SMMUSD Malibu pathway director, explained kindergarten through third-graders would have 60 minutes of “daily synchronous instruction”—live, two-way communication. Fourth and fifth-graders will receive 180 minutes per week of daily instruction time. Students enrolled in grades six through eight will have live daily interaction and at least weekly synchronous instruction totaling 120 minutes a week. High schoolers are scheduled 60 minutes a week for synchronous instruction.

Both Drati and Burgess stressed that independent study may not be equitable to traditional instruction. 

“We want to make sure this is the right choice for a student,” said Burgess, who added, “This will not in any way replicate the experience that our students will receive at all levels by being in person.”

While Drati urged parents to make a decision by the Aug. 6 deadline, he did acknowledge its difficulty for some families. 

“If you’re anxious about making a decision by the sixth … this deadline is to help us organize the staffing,” Drati said. “There’s a lot of moving parts here. If you do not reach a decision by the sixth, it’s fine. There’s a board meeting next week. I’m sure there’ll be some robust conversation about some of the details about masking and testing.” 

“We want to make sure all of our students are going to be successful,” Burgess concluded. 

More information can be found at SMMUSD.org. Questions regarding independent study should be directed to Olympic High School Principal Anthony Fuller at afuller@smmusd.org.

The school board voted during a Tuesday, Aug. 10, special meeting to pass resolutions requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for all district employees as well as universal indoor and outdoor masking and regular testing for employees and students. 

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