“We are committed to continuing in-person instruction and have taken measures to ensure that we are doing so safely,” according to the superintendent.

Santa Monica students were back in classrooms this week following a winter break that coincided with a drastic uptick in local COVID-19 cases, with school officials saying their goal was to continue offering in-person instruction unless absolutely forced to go remote.

The goal was not met in Malibu, where 20 new virus cases triggered a distance learning day for Malibu High School and Middle School students on Tuesday, Jan. 4.

“Given the high percentage of positive cases from Sunday’s testing and given the prior recommendations from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LADPH) physician assigned to our outbreak case prior to winter break, we have determined that Tuesday, January 4th will be a distance learning day,” MHS Principal Patrick Miller wrote in an email to MHS/MMS families on Monday afternoon. “This will allow us to receive the results from today’s testing and to notify any additional positive cases, ensuring they do not come to campus. It will also allow us to obtain test results from any student who did not show up to either testing day.”

All other district school sites were set to return in person as scheduled; Miller wrote that administrators planned to have in-person instruction resume at MHS/MMS on Wednesday.

“There is no specific case threshold at which state and local public health recommend a temporary closure of a classroom or school. Guidance from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) states that ‘a temporary school closure due to COVID-19 should be a last resort and considered only after all available resources have been exhausted in an attempt to preserve in-person education,’” Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Superintendent Ben Drati wrote in a letter to parents dated Sunday, Jan. 2. “Should a situation arise where our district is seeing high rates of in-school transmission, we will work with the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) and local public health officials to make decisions that support the health and safety as well as continuity of learning for our students. If we are experiencing operational challenges such as our ability to maintain sufficient staff to provide in-person instruction, we will also work with our guiding agencies to make appropriate decisions.”

The letter was delivered two hours after the LA County Department of Public Health reported nearly 45,000 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded countywide over the New Years holiday weekend, “even with the holiday reporting delays.”

In Santa Monica, 1,475 new cases were reported between Sunday, Dec. 26, and Sunday, Jan. 2 — more new cases than had been recorded in the three previous weeks combined. Over the course of the pandemic, 10,245 coronavirus cases have been reported in Santa Monica.

Elementary school students were instructed to resume in-person learning as previously scheduled on Monday, Jan. 3, with secondary school students to be back in classrooms the following day; however, Drati wrote to parents that they “may keep [their] child home from school with an excused absence if you would like to wait a few days to see on-site testing results for your site.”

District spokesperson Gail Pinsker wrote in an email that the district was aware of students being kept home, but was not immediately able to provide data on how many kids stayed home on Monday.

“Schools are also allowing students to come in during their usual PCR testing time and leave, as long as they are asymptomatic,” Pinsker added.

Drati’s letter also addressed new county masking guidelines which require medical-grade masks for educators and “strongly recommends” them for students.

“At this time, all school employees … must wear surgical-grade masks (also referred to as medical procedure masks) or higher level PPE (e.g. KN95 or N95 respirator masks),” according to guidance published Saturday. “For those wearing surgical masks, double masking, with a cloth face covering worn over the surgical mask, is recommended for enhanced protection. Cloth face coverings alone are no longer acceptable, as they do not provide the same level of source control or personal protection as a proper surgical mask or higher level PPE.”

Those rules were set to go into effect by Jan. 15.

Pinsker, who said district leadership spent the greater part of the day Monday discussing COVID-19 policy, wrote that when it came to new masking rules, “we are currently discussing the new guidance and will order and comply within two weeks as directed.”

Districts will be required to provide surgical-grade or higher level PPE for all school employees, the budget for which Pinsker acknowledged would also need to be discussed.

Both Drati and LA County DPH encouraged parents to have their eligible children vaccinated. Districtwide, 88 percent of students ages 12-17 had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Dec. 26, the latest data available; the rate was about half that for students ages five-11, with 46.8 percent of young students at least partially vaccinated. Still, the SMMUSD vaccination rate for young children ages five-11 was double the countywide average of just 22.4 percent vaccinated in that age group.

“Achieving a high vaccination rate on your school campus is the first and best way to lower risk of infection and transmission at your school, greatly decrease risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death in those who are fully vaccinated, and provide an additional layer of protection for those who cannot be fully vaccinated, are immunocompromised, or have underlying health conditions,” according to DPH guidance.

As of early January, SMMUSD staff were required to be vaccinated, but the district did not have a vaccine mandate in place for students. A survey given to district parents last fall indicated vaccine mandates were popular among Santa Monica parents, but Malibu parents were divided on the issue.

Vaccine clinics were scheduled for Jan. 4 at John Adams Middle School, Jan. 5 at McKinley Elementary School and Jan. 6 at Malibu High School, all from 2:30-5 p.m.

Recent CDC guidelines that shortened quarantine from five to 10 days following a positive test result were not yet in place, Drati wrote, saying the district was “awaiting direction from our local guiding health agencies.”

In an earlier letter, Drati detailed the district’s quarantine guidelines.

“If any SMMUSD community member (including staff and students) is fully vaccinated, (meaning greater than two weeks since the second dose and within six months of the second or subsequent doses), then they will not need to quarantine if exposed to a positive case and they remain asymptomatic,” according to a Dec. 30 letter from Drati. “If your student has been vaccinated please share that information (copy of vaccination card) with your school health office so they are aware in the case of a quarantine. If you are a staff member please share vaccination updates with human resources.”

On Dec. 31, DPH updated the guidance to specify that quarantine exemptions would only be granted to “persons who are boosted” or “persons who are fully vaccinated but not yet booster-eligible.” As of Jan. 3, boosters are available to all residents ages 16 and up.

emily@smdp.com