Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District offices (File photo)

Employees in SMMUSD’s child care and preschool programs, as well as its special education department, have been out of work in recent weeks in an effort to keep the district fiscally flexible, but local educators say the decision negatively affects students districtwide when the pandemic is already putting some student groups at a severe disadvantage.

Layoffs in the district have occurred since February when dozens of teachers first received pink slips. And in recent weeks, a number of positions, including Speech-Language Pathology Assistants and preschool workers — some who had more than 20 years of experience in the district — have been affected by district cuts as well. SMMUSD’s board of education has rescinded most of the pink slips it previously handed out this year but with last month’s approved reopening plan now in the works, the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District intends to start the school year without preschool, child care and after-school tutoring programs, which Service Employees International Union leaders said will affect nearly 700 children.

“We not only support children, we help their families,” said Monica Razon McMillan, a teacher assistant who has worked in the child development program for 24 years. “Working parents need the peace of mind of a safe and secure learning environment for their children. It’s sad that the school district simply decided to close down with no real plans to reopen early education programs.”

In an interview last week, McMillan said she knew the move to lay off Child Development Services staff would affect the entire community, and she wasn’t alone.

“Because we have hotel workers, and market employees, and people who drive for Uber and Lyft and also SMC students who all know we provide services for them… They know their child is going to get, breakfast, lunch and snack and they have that security, knowing their children are going to be taken care of no matter what their needs are,” McMillan said. “And that’s such a huge weight off their shoulders because every child’s situation is different. I mean, we’ve had children that were homeless, we had children that live with their grandparents. We see it all and we’re here for families from morning to night to help.”

And like McMillan, former Speech-Language Pathology Assistant Jennifer Ingle said she worked with students who could very well struggle without the supports she provided and worries what their year will look like without the assistants who helped the often-busy speech and language pathologists.

Ingle has delivered speech therapy to students with communication disorders in special education for the last eight years along with her fellow SLPA, who was also recently let go during the district’s budget cuts.

“Our layoff was not a result of lack of work nor was it a RIF associated with reduced enrollment as was the case for some certificated staff,” Ingle said.

“Up until my last paid workday on June 10th, I delivered full days of speech teletherapy to elementary, middle, and high school students via Zoom/Google meet every day,” and until June 4, when SMMUSD’s board of education voted to lay off childcare center workers, bilingual community liaisons, paraeducators, custodial, clerical, and speech pathology assistants, Ingle said she was hopeful she would be hired by SMMUSD to work as a full-time speech pathologist so she could continue providing students at nearly every local school with the specific one-on-one instruction they need to thrive in school.

Now, the opportunity is gone even though Ingle is still on track to become certified in May. And like the students that she and McMillan had to say goodbye to, Ingle is unsure what will come next.

SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker said, “We have not eliminated or cut any programs in our Child Development Services (CDS) Department, including the Infant & Toddler Center, preschool, and child care services. Our programs are fee-based, with tuition on a sliding scale, along with state-subsidized support. With our programs closed during COVID, and uncertainty about continued state funding or fee-paying families, we were unable to keep staff on payroll as there was no revenue stream to pay them.”

Pinsker added the layoff was a fiscally prudent decision and the district hopes to bring back all staff at some point soon.

SEIU leaders noted the board’s decision comes at a time when parents are struggling to secure care for their children in order to return to work and the fact the district surveyed parents to determine the “best way to reopen” preschools and other child development centers. Despite 90% of parents responding that they would participate in an in-person or hybrid program, the district moved to close all centers without consideration of alternative models, SEIU officials said in a news release. In another district survey, 75% of parents said they would require child care or student supervision in the fall.

“While safety is paramount in any decisions about returning to school, by excluding early education and care from reopening plans, the Santa Monica Malibu Unified school district is ignoring its responsibility to our youngest learners. This rushed and ill-advised decision will have a lasting impact on our communities and on young children who need stability now and as they move forward beyond this crisis,” said Max Arias, Executive Director of SEIU Local 99. “School reopening plans must include all children. As concerned education workers, we’re taking action.”

Pinsker said, “Early childhood education is extremely important to us and we know positive experiences in early childhood provide a foundation for kindergarten and school readiness. We also know our families rely on these programs, (so) a resumption of our Early Childhood programs is a very high priority for us and this will occur as soon as it is safe for our students and staff.”