In an effort to minimize the spread of Covid-19 on campus, SMMUSD is going beyond County safety requirements and instituting outdoor masking and weekly Covid-19 testing as part of its reopening plan.

These measures were met with some community pushback as several parents and some of their children called into an Aug. 10 School Board meeting and argued that these requirements would have negative impacts on students’ learning, emotional health and social wellbeing.

The protocols did ultimately receive the support of the teachers union and all six board members present, who believe the rules will provide an additional layer of safety and can be adapted during the school year once community transmission rates lower.

“We are still living in a world pandemic unlike any other. If we were still following the LA County tier system in place before vaccines were available, we would be in the purple tier,” said SMMCTA President Claudia Bautista-Nicholas. “For this reason, our SMMCTA Executive Board feels that we should support Dr. Drati’s mandates as they are the responsible and appropriate response to this pandemic.”

The Board also approved a vaccination mandate for staff that goes beyond County requirements. All District employees must show proof of vaccination within 45 days of the policy becoming effective. The only exception is for individuals who are not eligible for vaccination and must instead submit to weekly testing.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Certified Teachers Association agreed to this mandate, but is still in the process of negotiating the terms for what happens if teachers refuse vaccination.

All of these safety protocols—outdoor masking, teacher vaccination and weekly testing—are recommended by the County, even though they are not legally required.

When it comes to the outdoor masking requirement, Superintendent Ben Drati said this was proposed largely at the direction and advice of staff members.

Per the newly approved protocol, everyone on campus is required to wear a mask outdoors during school hours and during CDS before- and after-school programs. The exception to this rule is during outdoor instructional periods such as PE when teachers are able to monitor appropriate social distancing.

“Last year 100 percent of principals said it was very difficult to keep the kids apart during lunch time and passing periods,” said Drati. “It’s the staff, the ones who are doing the work to protect the students on campus, that are saying we need the mask outside as well.”

Drati further explained that outdoor masking would help with contact tracing by lowering the number of potential exposures in the event a student or staff member tests positive for COVID.

The District plans to introduce weekly surveillance testing for all students. The County only requires schools provide testing for students and staff who have symptoms or a known exposure, but the District’s logic is that surveillance testing will allow them to stay ahead of major outbreaks.

“I think that screening is very valuable to us in case we miss something, we can catch it right away and be proactive about addressing it,” said Drati. “We would love to catch situations ahead of time and we believe that periodic weekly testing will allow that to occur.”

Parents calling into the meeting expressed alarm over the stress that weekly testing would put on young children given that nasal swabs can feel uncomfortable and invasive.

Board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein expressed sympathy for these parents and made a point to clarify that the surveillance test does not require a deep nasal swab and can be administered by students themselves. The responsive test, which will be used in the event of symptoms or exposure, does require a deeper nasal swab.

“There’s more to do here to be able to convey that we get the nuance and that we can hear people who are concerned, particularly about what’s gonna happen with weekly testing, and to explain to people that it’s not the responsive test, it’s the surveillance test,” said Tahvildaran-Jesswein.

Several board members made similar efforts to convey that they heard the worries of parents regarding the District’s stringent safety measures.

Board member Laurie Lieberman, emphasized that these were temporary protocols and called for a report on them to be shared at every board meeting. This suggestion was added into the protocol and approved by Board vote.

“I do think it is really important that we have regular reporting and I think we need to communicate that none of us want to have outdoor masking or testing any longer than the public health crisis calls for that,” said Lieberman. “This is not a permanent thing.”

Clara@smdp.com