Parents organized a 'get kids back to school' rally outside of District headquarters prior to the Board's vote on reopening models

Teachers are scared to return to the classroom. Many parents say their children need to be there. From these seemingly irreconcilable sides, School Board members approved a reopening model that, while fully satisfying no one, made strong headway in bridging community demands.

In a Dec. 17 meeting, members of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education approved a “Distance Learning Plus” model for when L.A. County enters Tier 2 of COVID-19 restrictions.

Distance learning will serve to maintain educational consistency and prioritize safety, while the ‘plus’ will create opportunities for students to have two valuable in-person experiences a week.

The decision was watched with heated community interest.

Over 350 people attended the six-hour meeting and 50 members of the public registered to speak. Board President Jon Kean implored people to speak with “empathy for those who might disagree with you” and “without belittling and demeaning those who feel differently.”

His entreatment was understandable as tensions flared high in the run up to the meeting.

A group of parents organized a petition advocating for returning students to the classroom and staged a re-open schools car rally in front of District headquarters. A group of teachers created a nine page document rebutting each of the points parents used to argue for increased in-person activities.

Both parties walked away — or in this case clicked away — from the Board meeting with key parts of their demands satisfied.

For teachers, 85 percent of which opposed a hybrid learning model, the selection of distance learning plus allayed fears of a forced classroom return in the spring.

“I know parents are struggling and their kids are suffering, but so are my teachers. They have the same fears for themselves and their families while they work seven days a week to create a five day a week learning community for our students,” said Teachers’ Union President Sarah Braff. “As this global pandemic continues to rage unabated, we need to focus on what we can do well in distance learning plus.”

For the parent organization, whose members originally preferred a hybrid model, the District’s willingness set up meetings and Dr. Drati’s decision to receive their petition in person at the car rally fostered a productive dialogue.

The organizers adapted their demands to maximizing the ‘plus’ aspect of the District’s plan and were pleased to hear Board members support their propositions in Thursday’s meeting.

“Not only did the SMMUSD school board feel the pressure from this petition and from yesterday’s rally in front of district headquarters; they embraced each and every one of our policy recommendations at the public meeting last night,” stated a Dec. 18 petition update.

The ‘plus’ aspect of the plan, while drawing some criticism for its fuzzy definition, is intended to be an adaptable concept, allowing in-person activities to ramp up as the threat of COVID-19 recedes.

“We should set standards for ‘plus’. We should be incredibly flexible in letting site administrators and families define what those are and how to meet those standards for their schools sites,” said Board Member Richard Tahvildaran Jesswein.

The concept’s flexibility does not mean it will be without clear expectations. Board members urged the District to define ‘plus’ activities in the coming weeks and said they should focus on supporting special education students, English language learners, and students with individualized education programs.

Once L.A. County enters Tier 2, the District has committed to providing at least two meaningful on-campus experiences per week including at least one with a classroom teacher.

While in Tier 1, the District is also pursuing waiver approval for a hybrid reopening of Transitional Kindergarten through Grade 2. Parent advocates are pushing the District to work now on a concrete plan for moving ahead if this is granted.

“When and if waivers are approved — because I don’t know if it’s when or if it’s if the way things are looking — we need to find a coalition of the willing,” said Kean, emphasizing the need to gain the support of both families and teachers to move forward with TK – 2 reopening.

Clara@smdp.com