The Archdiocese of Los Angeles may begin handing out waivers for schools to launch in-person instruction for TK through second grades—and Our Lady of Malibu School Principal Michael Smith thinks his school has a good shot at getting one. 

According to Smith, LA County Health Department officials who visited the school’s current “academic day camp” program on Tuesday, Sept. 29, said it was “strong” and “run ... the way it’s supposed to be.” Smith believes this assurance gives his school an excellent and, importantly, recent track record that may help speed the waiver process that would allow OLM’s littlest students’ teachers to return to their classrooms.

Archdiocesan schools have been cleared to begin filling out waivers in anticipation of the application opening; OLM is currently in the process of gathering the correct materials to fill it out. Smith expected to learn more about the reopening process on Wednesday, Oct. 7, via a Zoom call with Archdiocese of Los Angeles Superintendent Paul Escala. 

“My understanding is that the response from the LA Department of Health that we got last Tuesday, along with our application, should give us immediate opportunity to switch in and go to in-person learning with kinder through second grade classes,” Smith told The Malibu Times. From what he was hearing, he said, that switch could happen as early as next Monday, Oct. 12. He rated his school’s overall chances of receiving a waiver to be “high.”

OLM had hoped to launch in-person learning earlier in the school year, as The Malibu Times  reported in early September, but rapidly shifting guidance from the state, county, and Archdiocese continued to move the goalposts backward. Reopening standards were first based on whether or not Los Angeles County could average below 200 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks. Then, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a more stringent, four-tiered system based on two metrics: “the rate of daily new cases per 100,000 residents over a recent seven-day period, which is adjusted to account for how much testing each county is doing, and the average percentage of tests for the virus that come back positive over seven days,” according to the LA Times. 

Currently, Los Angeles County remains in the widespread-transmission (purple) tier, but the county has so far made it one week with the metrics necessary to move to the next, the moderate-transmission (red) tier. If the county can hold steady for one more week, it will change tiers, according to LA County Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

In place of school, OLM has been running an “academic day camp” program where students receive instruction with the help of classroom aides. Though “a little more costly because [OLM] has to hire camp counselors (who function as aides),” as Smith described, the day camp still “allows students to learn and interact, building social and emotional learning tools they might not be able to develop as well virtually.” 

OLM’s seventh and eighth graders are in a separate program from the academic day camp because “the majority of all the kids have a form of documentation that shows they have some learning challenges.” Those two grades are already in-person with their teachers. 

Marguerite Wolfe, OLM’s sixth grade homeroom teacher who teaches religion and history to sixth graders and Math to sixth, seventh and eighth graders, said she bounces back and forth between in-person and virtual teaching every day.

“I’m online twice a day for an hour each time when I teach math and history, but for my seventh and eighth classes I’m able to be with them in-person,” Wolfe said. New to OLM this year, Wolfe has found the commute from her home in Simi Valley a good transition, the Malibu community “welcoming and realistic about the expectations they have for their kids” and her assigned instructional aide “wonderful.”

OLM’s principal described the current situation as a “win-win” because, even if the school does not receive a TK-through-second waiver, it can continue utilizing the academic day camp format. 

Third through sixth graders will continue using the day camp format because the Archdiocese has only offered waivers for younger grades. That’s because, according to Smith, virtual learning is toughest on the youngest learners.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which serves Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, works in tandem with the same state and county requirements to which public schools are subject. 

LAist reported on Saturday, Sept. 29, that the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion to implement waivers starting with grades TK through second at a rate of 30 schools per week, prioritizing schools with more students who qualify for free and reduced price meals. 

The LA Times reported that those waivers will be “equally divided among the five supervisorial districts.” Malibu falls into District 3, which stretches from the ocean to Los Feliz and from Venice up to San Fernando and is represented by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. 

“The process is intentionally designed to be slow,” KPCC/LAist reporter Carla Javier tweeted. “To make sure schools comply with their own safety plans, health officials will conduct site visits, post outbreak information and cite, fine or close schools that don’t comply.”

Some school principals have called for a more open waiver process that doesn’t put higher-income schools at the back of the line. Archdiocese Superintendent Escala signed a letter advocating for this change, but also called the board’s decision “progress” and said he was confident that the district’s schools would be able to comply with the waiver application rules, according to the LA Times. 

Los Angeles County’s reopening plans have been much more cautious than those in neighboring Orange County, “which started accepting waiver applications in August and continued granting them until the county was allowed to reopen any K-12 school without waivers on September 22,” Javier wrote. 

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