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

Local parents are demanding that schools reopen as soon as possible now that county case counts are lower and an agreement is in place between the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Santa Monica Malibu Classroom Teachers Association.

Dozens of parents phoned in to Thursday night’s meeting of the board of education to state their displeasure with the district’s current distance-learning model and share a need for schools to reopen on March 15. Most of the callers were associated with Open Up Santa Monica Malibu Schools, a newfound campaign started by local parents and health professionals looking to reopen the district, who cited decreasing case counts and hundreds of other open schools as reasons why SMMUSD should allow students to return to the fullest extent possible.

Parent Harriet Fraser said she was very proud of everybody who voiced their opinion Thursday night even though a large majority had never spoken at a board meeting.

“It is completely clear that we are on the right side of this argument, and everyone remained calm and respectful and you will have noticed I’m sure that no-one even spoke against school reopening. We are a community in crisis and the Board needs to do the right thing,” Fraser said. “While children are attending school around the country and in our neighboring communities, the Board seems to have ignored the fact that children are not in school in Santa Monica and Malibu. At this point, the District’s sole focus must be on returning children to campus. The Board is holding important and essential sessions about equity and diversity while the greatest inequity right now is playing out during this pandemic, where our socio-economically disadvantaged students and BIPOC students are at great risk of being set back years by this lack of leadership, planning and forward movement. The greatest gift of equity and diversity would be to provide an in-person education where children are surrounded by diverse peers and mentors.”

Superintendent Ben Drati recognized this week that case counts have fallen in the region to an acceptable level according to the terms of the new contract between the district and local teachers union.

“But the secondary part of that agreement is that we want the vaccines to be available for educators for 15 days prior to students returning,” Drati said Thursday. “So, for those parents out there that want a more definitive time on when (a reopening) is going to happen — those conditions are what’s going to dictate that.”

Drati added there is no district that can probably do more than a hybrid or distance learning model that looks similar to SMMUSD’s previously approved format.

“And I want to make sure I spent some time on that, because I’m also getting emails from families, thinking we can come back full-time as if COVID is not around,” he said. “Whoever does that is not going to get approved by the health department to open…so the two structures people are considering are really the stuff that we’re doing around distance-plus and then the hybrid. You can’t do more than that, otherwise you won’t meet the safety protocols.”

District spokesperson Gail Pinsker explained Friday the district’s currently approved model, District Learning Plus, provides for the ramping up of in-person experiences for students and staff until the County meets the thresholds that allows it to bring in more students at one time.

The model may include a hybrid-type option in the future, but since class sizes differ at each school, campuses are developing their own plan for Distance Learning-Plus, Pinsker said. “Site administrators have had meetings with staff and parents who have contributed and are supportive of the plan and schedule to start. Our principals are beginning to roll out their plans with their families and staff.”

Fraser feels the district’s efforts are unnecessary though.

“Science has clearly shown that (teachers) do not need to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom with that age group, and as long as strict protocols are followed and layered mitigation is in place then they are safe and there is no student to teacher spread,” she said, mentioning nearly 300 schools have students back on-campus in Los Angeles County. “We were encouraged that they agreed to come back after the opportunity of the first dose, so the clock is ticking.”