SMMUSD hosts panel discussion about the pandemic’s impact on education

By Alex Hutton

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) recently held a seminar covering the relationship between COVID-19 and schools.

The event, held over Zoom and streamed on Facebook Live, was a panel discussion mainly focused on efforts to return to in-person learning for the district’s schools. It was moderated by California state Sen. Ben Allen, a former SMMUSD board member who represents the 26th District, which covers most of the Westside.

The panelists included district superintendent Ben Drati, UCLA professor Jamie Lloyd-Smith, immunologist Rita Kachru and LA County Health Impact Evaluation Center Director William Nicholas.

Allen began the main portion of the event by discussing progress made in reopening efforts thus far. He focused on the positives, such as increasing vaccination rates and the county potentially being moved from the red to orange tier under California’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“We’re really making progress,” Allen said. “So that’s what gets us to this conversation today. How do we take advantage of that progress and get to a place where we can open our schools safely?”

Allen then asked the panel about its reactions to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which suggest that social distancing in classrooms can be as little as 3 feet rather than 6 feet. In his response, Lloyd-Smith focused on how scientists determined this, as well as the fact that children are less likely to contract and transmit the virus.

“The biggest drop in risk is when you go from no distance to three feet,” Lloyd-Smith said. “Then the risk keeps dropping, but really the biggest bang for your buck is that first three feet.”

The conversation moved on to what the next steps will look like. Kachru stressed a variety of actions from symptom monitoring, wearing masks, ventilation in classrooms, vaccinations, testing, contact tracing and general COVID-19-safe behavior.

Allen encouraged families to stay home during the district’s then-upcoming spring break, which runs through April 9.
Next, Allen brought up the topics of testing and vaccines. Nicholas was the main speaker on this issue, explaining the different types of testing — diagnostic, screening and surveillance — and how they vary based on who they test.

Diagnostic testing focuses on symptomatic people and their close contacts, screening testing attempts to identify asymptomatic individuals who have the virus, and surveillance testing involves testing a random sampling of people.
Nicholas expressed his hope for a plan centered around diagnostic and surveillance testing rather than screening, as he believed screening testing would be too difficult to execute.

The discussion also covered the subject of vaccines. Specifically, Lloyd-Smith mentioned how vaccines prevent infections and severe infections. He and Kachru acknowledged the questions surrounding variants of the virus and side effects of the vaccines, but stressed the importance of getting vaccinated.

“If you have an opportunity to get a vaccine, get one,” Kachru said. “Our older kids, when they have the opportunity, should get one.”

The panelists pointed out that with vaccinations potentially signaling the end of the pandemic, people should have all the more reason to stay safe until then.

Allen asked the panelists what message they would give to parents who might be nervous about sending their kids back to school in person.

“Any school that opens for in-person learning is required to provide an option for 100% distanced learning,” Nicholas said.
“And that’s a very personal decision. We have good evidence that in general, schools are not hubs of COVID-19 transmission. Rates [of cases in the county] are very low right now.”

Drati explained the district’s protocols and processes for identifying cases of the virus and minimizing risk to students and teachers.

When discussing summer and the 2021-2022 school year, Lloyd-Smith expressed optimism and caution. Kachru and Drati shared similar thoughts.

“It’s only going to get better,” Drati said.

Lastly, the panel discussed the impacts of COVID-19 on the ways in which the district schools operate.
The panelists offered high praise for teachers in adjusting to difficult situations and tried to focus on the positives.

“I believe that we’re going to see, in the next two or three months as we come back to school, that the community is really going to be in gear,” Kachru said.

“I think the kids want to come back.”