smmusd: The district outlined stories of success in local schools. Emily Sawicki

With classrooms back in session and mask mandates a thing of the past, the 2021-22 school year has been a glimpse at a post-COVID reality for local schools. 

Virus cases have remained low since the winter spike (60 cases were reported last week across all school campuses) and spread has been relatively nonexistent at school sites. In light of this, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) took the time to celebrate making it through what administrators hope will have been the worst of the pandemic and look ahead to the future of education in Santa Monica.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have an amazing staff. Our teachers, support staff and administration have been pushed to extremes [the] past few years, between distance learning and implementation of health and safety protocols,” Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati said during his remarks at the Monday, May 2, State of Our Schools event. “They have risen to the occasion … to not only educate our students, but support social-emotional well being.”

Drati was joined by several notable members of the school community including SMMUSD Board of Education members Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Maria Leon-Vazquez; Assistant Superintendent Jacqueline Mora; Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator Tom Whaley; Samohi Principal Antonio Shelton; and COO Carey Upton. Malibu High School Principal Patrick Miller delivered pre-taped remarks, as did several other administrators.

The State of Our Schools program also included performances from talented Santa Monica kids including the Samohi choir, chamber orchestra and middle school mariachi band.

Interspersed throughout the nearly two-hour program were videos of students, staff and administrators proclaiming they were “emerging stronger!” — the theme of the evening.

“I think that our teachers have emerged stronger because they have a new toolbox that they’re using to make sure that every kid has a chance at success,” one educator said.

Another talked about adapting to get through the pandemic: “We’ve always been strong, but in the end, all the new tools and things that we got made us stronger.”

Still, effects of the virus remained visible. While adult attendees at the event had bare faces, student orchestra performers remained masked during their string performance. Whaley acknowledged a grand opening for the $30 million John Adams Middle School Performing Arts Center was delayed due to COVID, with an opening expected “maybe in September.”

High points of the event included acknowledging McKinley Elementary earning a prestigious California Pivotal Practice Award from the California Department of Education, as well as both Samohi and Malibu High School being ranked among the top high schools in the state of California.