Malibu High School

Malibu High School administration building

One circuitous but welcome side effect of the tragic Woolsey Fire: Malibu’s teachers are uniquely experienced for this fall. The upcoming semester will be online as per a directive from California Governor Gavin Newsom earlier this month, which compounded an already-existing Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education decision.

“Malibu was a little ahead of the curve,” Malibu High School teacher Jennifer Gonzales said, in that teachers had already adjusted to the online platforms from Woolsey. “But I still think that last year was more crisis teaching.”

Gonzales has taught in the English department of Malibu High for 25 years; her friend Nancy Levy teaches fifth grade at Malibu Elementary. Before that, Levy taught at Juan Cabrillo Elementary for 25 years. Both Malibu residents and Woolsey victims themselves, Levy and Gonzales live in “teeny” trailers while their homes are being rebuilt after the 2018 fire. Since March, those trailers have also become classrooms, a setup that will now continue into the fall semester.

Normally, both would get to catch their breath a little over the summertime. But this year, though the district has said teachers will undergo professional development before school starts, they are taking webinars and reading up in anticipation of the upcoming school year when they will be busy running Zoom sessions, holding office hours, emailing students, grading work and prepping lessons.

“If you had asked me last semester, I would have said that [distance learning] is twice the work, half as efficient, with no joy of teaching,” Gonzales said. But she is hopeful her classes are going to be more efficient this fall, though the social aspect of teaching— the energy in the room she loves most—will never be replaced.

Some of Gonzales’ classes, such as AP Literature, adapt well to online learning. That class’ form of assessment is mostly essays, which are take-home anyway. But her students will still miss out on what she feels is the most critical part of the class: discussions where they analyze, listen to each other, affirm or change their opinions. And her film class may be hampered by Zoom’s glitchiness while streaming videos.

Levy, too, is doing the legwork now to get up to speed. However, she was already well-equipped for distance learning, having practiced a forward-thinking “blended learning” style for her fifth graders in which the teacher gives a mini-lesson and then bounces around different classroom groups checking in on different projects. Blended learning functions well with Zoom, where Levy can utilize the breakout room function to check in on each group and other tools to monitor the rest of the class’ activity.

For Levy, the hardest part of distance learning has been getting physical books into students’ hands and ensuring that everyone has access to the same resources. (Levy also serves as the Tech Jedi at Malibu Elementary, a side job whose duties ballooned when the pandemic hit.)

SMMUSD made the call to go online this fall two weeks ago, a decision that fell in step with Newsom’s subsequent order and one with which both Gonzales and Levy agree. The teachers expressed their trepidation: having masks on all the time, kids being seated six feet apart and not allowed to touch each other, losing instructional time to clean the classrooms and do temperature checks—so much would be lost and the learning environment would have been scary, knowing that the stakes might be life or death.

School Board Member Craig Foster told The Malibu Times that SMMUSD is still working on making some components of this fall’s education, such as special-ed, operate in-person.

Schools also function as vital childcare services for parents who need to go to work and provide necessary meals for kids. The school board is working on creating solutions for those issues that may be in-person, as well. Lastly, Foster hoped some extracurriculars that can be done outside such as sports, drama and music may be offered.

The state and federal governments have continuously changed the degree of financial support they plan to give to schools and will likely continue changing them, Foster described, making it difficult to know right now how deep the existing school funding crisis will become. Additionally, while there are extra costs associated with online learning, they may be offset due to fewer costs from in- person learning, such as no longer employing janitors to clean classrooms that are no longer in use.

Though they are one district, Santa Monica and Malibu schools may have different solutions down the line, due to the fact that Malibu is more rural. For now, SMMUSD is acting as one body, in step with greater LA County.

And that means distance learning.

“None of us love it, but we’ve accepted that we have to embrace it,” Gonzales said.

“Sometimes a crisis is an opportunity; I hope that we rise to it and make ourselves better and empower the kids to learn,” Levy said.

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