After seven long months of irksome distance learning, many parents and students are anxiously awaiting a return to in-person instruction at Santa Monica-Malibu public schools. But a return to normalcy will be a gradual process. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) held another virtual town hall Monday evening to explain a possible hybrid education model for elementary schools. Although still under study, a hybrid system is being readied for implementation once COVID-19 adjusted case rates and positivity rates have dropped to meet county health standards.
In order to meet six-foot distance requirements, pupils would be divided into two cohorts with each alternating to be on campus two days a week. One group would meet either Monday and Tuesday or Monday and Thursday, the other group on Thursday and Friday or Tuesday and Friday. The remaining three days are for online instruction. Families can opt for online learning only with a potential for live-streaming. This hybrid model allows for reduced class size and a more enriching in-person learning experience, although the unconventional childcare schedule will likely be an issue for many families. The increased cost for extensive daily sanitization of facilities and PPE for staff will be a burden for the district, as well.
The idea of cohorts may not be an issue for Malibu’s two elementary schools. Due to declining enrollment, a smaller class size may already allow for social distancing. However, elementary students in Malibu will lose bus service. Seventy-eight-seat buses will now only allow for 14 students at a time and will be reserved for special needs students.
Once children are allowed back on campus, they will be screened for temperatures and must self-report exposure or symptoms. SMMUSD Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati said it was critical that parents and students pause daily and ask the question: “Am I okay to send my child to school?”
“It’s an honor system,” Drati said at the meeting. “In order for us to be successful in tackling this, there is a social contract we have amongst ourselves from adults to students that we are going to behave in a certain way in order to combat this virus. The implications of not doing this could be detrimental to executing our plans to bring people on campus.”
SMMUSD nurse Maya Lindemann stated the importance of parents’ ability to pick up their children “ASAP” if they don’t pass the daily screening. The implications of a virus exposure at school could mean a whole cohort—or even more students—entering quarantine, depending on outbreaks.
SMMUSD Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton addressed the question posed by many parents anxious to get their children back on campus: Why doesn’t the district use tents? Weather conditions in Malibu just this week offered an example of why that is not possible. He explained there are standards concerning wind loads, structure and safety.
“While we’d love to do that, it’s not feasible,” Upton said. “We’ve looked at this time and time again. We’ve brought in engineers and architects and it’s not a viable option. We had a couple of pop-ups and, as expected, they blew away. They became flying and dangerous and were destroyed.”
Hybrid learning will change lunchtime, too. Cafeteria buffet-style lunches are out. All meals will be prepackaged and eaten outdoors at tables placed six feet apart to make it safer to remove masks while eating. In between lunch periods, staff will sanitize the tables. While addressing the possibility of children intermingling at lunch period, Drati acknowledged it was “not perfect.”
“It’s not a perfect science,” Drati said. “With elementary, we’re trying to cohort with students as much as possible. That helps with contact tracing. This is guidance provided by the health department. Having lunch while students are socially distanced and masks off to eat is expected. Let’s not allow this component to distract us from executing a hybrid. It’s not perfect. The only perfect way to keep everybody safe is not to bring anybody back. If we want to reopen, we have to understand everything is not going to be perfect. We’re going to do our best.”
Drati encouraged parents to ask questions or make comments on reopening plans: smmusd.org/superindendent