Update, Feb. 19: The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has ratified an agreement that could see the district's youngest learners back in classrooms by spring break—if everything goes according to plan.
According to the agreement, which was finalized by district representatives and representatives of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association during a special meeting this week, a "distance learning plus" model will go into effect for students in grades TK through sixth as early as 15 days after the LA Department of Public Health has begun vaccinating teachers and childcare workers (which is set to begin March 1), so long as the county case rate remains below 25 new cases per 100,000 residents.
The threshold for older students (grades six-12) to return to classrooms is when the county reaches the "red tier." Currently, the county is in the purple tier.
"The agreement reflects that the DL+ [district learning-plus] model includes bringing students to school sites for on-site/in-person activities while continuing effective distance learning," a statement from the district detailed. "The agreement seeks to balance having on-site/in-person academic, physical and social-emotional learning experiences, while not disadvantaging students who remain at home."
According to the model, when classrooms re-open, parents may choose whether or not to send their students back to campus for in-person schooling.
With COVID case rates dropping and vaccine eligibility expansion on the horizon for all of LA County, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) reached a tentative agreement with the local teachers’ union, signaling a major step toward reopening schools, at least for grades TK through sixth.
In a prepared statement released on Monday, Feb. 15, SMMUSD Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati said the agreement—though not yet ratified by the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association—had come after “extended negotiating sessions this past week.” Danielle Murawski, a Spanish teacher at Malibu Middle and High School and a union representative, did not offer a comment to The Malibu Times on Tuesday, Feb. 16, saying her board needed to meet to discuss the topic with its members.
Drati’s statement broke down the tentative agreement into two parts.
First, LA county would have to reach 25/100,000 [25 infections per 100,000 residents] or fewer for five consecutive days for elementary students to return and 7/100,000 [seven infections per 100,000 residents] for secondary students to return.
Second, vaccines would have to be available to teachers and campus staff for a period of 15 days prior to students returning.
In an online press conference, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, who has led the LA County Public Health Department through the pandemic, said that the county was seeing 20 new cases per every 100,000 residents as of Tuesday, Feb. 16, and that the county’s cumulative positivity rate was at 19 percent. The county’s case rate and positivity rate were both “steadily declining.”
The county remains in the purple tier (“widespread transmission”) and Ferrer added that when the state had first introduced the tier system in Sept. 2020 (what Ferrer called “our best days”), LA County had qualified for the red tier (“substantial transmission”) for just one week.
“I’m confident we can get there, but we all have to stay on track ... because we do have circulating more infectious variants, and that just means we have to be more careful, not less careful right now,” Ferrer said.
Concerns were also raised about the spread of virus variants in LA County, some of which are thought to spread more easily than the Wuhan strain.
“Viruses always mutate, so variants are to be expected,” Ferrer responded, but continued to urge increased caution.
Ferrer estimated that one third of Angelenos had already contracted the virus and so had some protection from it in the form of antibodies. Those who have had the chance to receive the vaccine also had some protection against COVID-19, she said.
That slice of the population is small. Despite the efforts of healthcare providers across the county, mass supplies of vaccines have not arrived.
LA County, Ferrer estimated, had the capacity to be administering 600,000 vaccines per day. Instead, it was only distributing 200,000.
“We don’t have a capacity issue at all; we have a supply issue,” Ferrer said. Teachers and school staff are scheduled to get the vaccine beginning March 1, when an additional 1.5 million people will become eligible for the shot, but supply issues remain.
Students back in school would be required to wear masks, stay in fixed, small groups and socially distance.
Even if everything goes smoothly, some parents and students might still feel more comfortable staying safe at home and doing online learning for the rest of the year, leadership acknowledged. Ferrer explained that the State of California mandates that any school reopening must also continue to offer online learning.
Drati’s statement echoed this.
“A reminder that reopening for the rest of the year will be under the distance learning-plus model,” the superintendent wrote. “Each school site has developed a distance learning-plus model and details of the plan will be distributed to families by each school site’s principal.”
During Ferrer’s press conference, LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis emphasized that much of those decisions come down to economic factors, describing parents who had been forced to quit their jobs to take care of their children who were staying home and doing school online. “The process has been unworkable for many,” Solis said. “The digital divide has only expanded the learning gap between those who have access and those who do not.”