On Friday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that all schools in Los Angeles County and the 31 other counties on the state’s coronavirus monitoring list cannot resume in-person learning next month.

The order came just hours after the seven members of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education voted unanimously on Thursday, July 16, to adopt Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati’s recommendation that schools begin this August through online distance-learning. 

The board delivered the ruling late Thursday night after listening to a presentation from Drati and Director of Assessment, Research and Evaluation Sam Koshy, along with 22 comments from members of the public. 

The decision, which Board President Jon Kean called “one of the most important topics we have faced in years,” prioritized the physical safety of students and staff, despite concerns online-only classes may harm students’ emotional well-being or quality of education.

In their presentation, Drati and Koshy walked Zoom meeting participants through the three models they considered: Model A, in which all students and staff would have returned to classrooms full time for five days per week; Model B, in which students would be divided into two cohorts and take turns learning in class and online; and Model C, in which all students and staff would learn online from their homes. 

Drati and Koshy’s final recommendation was that the school year, which starts Aug. 20, begin with Model C and eventually move to B or even A, depending on how successfully coronavirus is contained. At the time of Drati’s presentation, 75 percent of the 80 school districts in LA County had already chosen to do distance learning with a plan to transition to in-person learning. 

Drati and Koshy based their recommendations on the guidance of Newsom and LA County and the latest data available about LA County’s recent spike in coronavirus infections. They also weighed factors such as fiscal solvency—Drati noted that public schools are unlikely to receive more money from the state to supplement distance learning and could likely receive less money as the California economy continues to suffer the effects of COVID-19—alongside the results of multiple surveys they had administered earlier this year. 

One of those surveys asked staff if they would be able to return to work in person if needed, to which a majority of respondents answered that yes, they would. Nearly one in five respondents answered that they would need some sort of assistance, such as childcare, if they were to return in person.

Drati and Koshy polled close to 9,500 SMMUSD parents in a separate survey on which of the three models they preferred. The results were neck-and-neck: 35 percent of parents chose Model A, another 35 percent chose model B, and 30 percent chose Model C. 

A few speakers, such as Matt Tucker, pushed for the board to consider voting against the superintendent’s recommendation and choose some form of in-person learning. 

“The parents of Santa Monica and Malibu have spoken: 70 percent want at least a hybrid of in-person and distance learning. SMMUSD teaching staff have also spoken; 79 percent of employees say they could come back to work if required,” Tucker said, referencing the surveys. “The school board is an elected body and exists to carry out the will of its constituents—us. You’re obligated to hear the 70-plus percent of parents and vote as they have directed you to vote.”

Tucker also raised concerns about the efficacy of distance learning, saying, “Throughout this presentation, I’ve watched the board members multitasking, I’ve multitasked, and yet we expect children to learn in this environment. It’s just not realistic.” 

Drati emphasized in his presentation that teachers will have much more time this fall to prepare their online lessons than they did in spring, on top of the valuable experiences they had in spring figuring out what works and what does not.

Drati also said that the school board would set aside funds for an as-of-yet unspecified number of days of teachers’ professional development before the beginning of the year. The school board would also embed professional training throughout the year, as they do every year, constantly refining instruction. 

Several members of the public worried that this training would not be enough. Sarah Barrett said she thought that training during the school year would be like “trying to catch a runaway train.” 

Many implored the board to compensate teachers for the extra work, offer them the use of their classrooms as spaces from which to broadcast online lessons and consider utilizing outside space instead of classrooms when students do come back in-person. Some floated the idea of redirecting funds from the construction of Santa Monica High School’s capstone project toward teacher training. 

Others spoke of the importance of putting accountability measures and ways for students to give feedback to their teachers in place. Still others raised concerns over how to address the fact that distance learning exacerbates inequities and that some students experience much more learning loss than others. 

Parents also spoke of how their children have suffered from depression and anxiety without in-person school. Erin Inatsugu hoped that teachers would not start the day before  9 a.m. for the sake of students’ mental health, while other parents discussed the fact that online learning cannot mirror the same amount of hours as in-person school does, which would make for a total of around eight hours in front of a screen, plus the time spent doing homework. 

Most of all, members of the public stressed that any decisions must include parents. Several felt that the workings of the board and the administration were opaque and that their decisions were delivered late and with few specifics. 

Ultimately, though, many members of the public—while still voicing their concerns—praised the board for their decision to adopt Model C. “Not one student or staff life is worth it. No other country has reopened schools without containing the virus and the U.S.sw is nowhere near that,” Shelly Ehrke said. 

Jeremy Borden pointed out that the survey only asks if teachers are able to go back to work in-person, not if they want to. “Teachers are essential but not expendable,” Borden said. “Teachers should not be forced to put their lives at stake to come back to work.

“Whenever the district transitions back, I want teachers and students to have the choice to continue with 100 percent remote [learning],” he continued. 

Other members of the public agreed that providing options and flexibility is key, whether that be flexibility to choose from multiple ways of learning information or whether or not to return to school. 

For now, though, school will start online this August. “Let’s get started working at 8 a.m. tomorrow,” Kean said, officially instructing Drati to move forward with Model C.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the viewpoint of a school district parent. The story has been updated with correct information.

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