During a long and eventful Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Board of Education meeting Aug. 5, the board heard or acknowledged over 100 protests regarding teachers having to return to the classroom on Sept. 1 with no assurances of their safety.
The board also heard from the assistant supervisors of elementary, middle and high schools on the four main schooling methods that LBUSD will offer in the 2020-2021 academic year as the pandemic continues. Parents now have until Aug. 14 to choose one of those programs.
The board also revisited renaming schools and its equity policy. And it chose Jon Meyer as its new vice president after Megan Kerr resigned the position and Dr. Juan Benitez declined his nomination.
During two hours of the Aug. 5 meeting, with cars honking in protest outside, dozens of teachers and parents voiced their concerns in person and by email– often emotionally– about teachers having to return to classrooms on Sept. 1.
Most teachers cited fears of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to their own children or aging parents at home. They said LBUSD has given no specifics on safety precautions, especially regarding ventilation.
Many simply asked for flexibility or choice rather than being forced to return, especially if they or their families are at high risk for contracting the virus.
John Kane, a LBUSD teacher, said he would show up to school but many of his colleagues feel otherwise and are afraid for their safety or that of their families.
“These people are scared,” he said.
Tony Brown, a parent of three children at LBUSD, also said teachers are worried and should be given the choice of whether to return in person or teach online only.
“That some teachers prefer to be back in the classroom shouldn’t mean all teachers are required to be back in the classroom,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, Board President Diana Craighead and Superintendent Dr. Jill Baker said that LBUSD is currently negotiating about teacher flexibility with the Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB), a union representing over 3,700 local teachers.
“We want nothing more than to open school in a way that meets the needs of our students and keeps our students and our staff safe,” Baker said.
Kerr later blamed the federal government for its lack of leadership, support and funding for public-school safety and addressing the digital divide that gives students unequal access to learning-technology at home.
Though Kerr said she understands the concerns of those who spoke and emailed her, she commends LBUSD department’s hundreds of employees for having to navigate a complex situation.
“It’s really hard for all of us right now,” she said.
Parents now have until Aug. 14 to choose a schooling method for their children that they can commit to for the academic year. Varying by grade level, the choices include: being fully at school, fully online, a hybrid of both or independent study.
The various instructional models for each grade level can be found here.
All classes will be online from when classes start Sept. 1 until at least Oct. 5, due to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, LBUSD says.
After that, instructional programs that include at-school options will divide students into two groups– A and B– to minimize the number of children on campus at a time.
LBUSD states on its website that it sent surveys to the parents of enrolled students with information about the different instructional options.
“This survey simply determines your preference regarding multiple options for students, so that we can plan for staffing and master schedules,” LBUSD states.
Parents can make their selection via the ParentVue mobile app, LBUSD says.
“For families that do not complete the survey, the default option will be to have your child return to school either fully (grades K-5) or in a hybrid format (grades 6-12), once it is safe to do so,” it states.
The assistant supervisors of elementary, middle and high schools presented each model in detail to the Board during the meeting, noting that more information will be sent to parents soon, including about safety measures at school and special programs.
Dr. Christopher Lund, the assistant supervisor for middle schools and K-8, said that middle schools will offer three program models: 100% virtual, a hybrid of at-school and virtual, and independent study, which he said is self-directed like homeschooling but includes interaction with teachers.
As of Aug. 5, two-thirds of parents of Franklin Middle School’s 1,300 students are choosing a hybrid option, 25% are choosing the all-virtual program and 6% are choosing independent study, Lund said.
Therefore, about 500 students will be coming back to Franklin in-person on different days, half on the A schedule and half on B, Lund said. Monday will be a virtual day for both A and B groups to allow for deep cleaning of the school.
Benitez said he wants reassurance of an equitable distribution of instruction across all schools, regardless of program.
He also called for social and emotional support for students and parent-training in the different models, especially for those who speak a language other than English.
Lund said all programs are designed to be robust regardless of which one a parent chooses and that social and emotional learning is being incorporated in all education programs.
The Board also heard about a new learning-management system (LMS) being incorporated for the school year.
Dr. Erin Simon, director of student-support services, said that teachers will be trained in the new software during August and LBUSD is working on providing resources for students with disabilities to use the system.
School renaming and equity
The board approved resurrecting a school-advisory committee initially formed in 2015 to consider the rebranding of some LBUSD schools named after people that community members now deem racist or otherwise problematic.
Kerr said she wants to make sure the committee itself has adequate representation.
Though she served on the committee in 2015, some groups have more relevance in 2020 than they did then, Kerr said.
“I see this differently,” she said. “I see it through a different lens today.”
Benitez warned that while names and symbols are important, addressing systemic issues like racism and sexism need community acknowledgement and engagement.
“In and of itself, it doesn’t dismantle racism,” Benitez said of renaming schools. “It doesn’t eliminate structural inequalities.”
Board Member Dr. Felton Williams said that renaming should be thought of strategically and tied to the board’s larger Equity Policy. City Prosecutor Doug Haubert recently submitted Williams’s name to the board as a new moniker for Jordan High School.
Baker said the 2015 committee had eight name-change recommendations that have not yet been implemented and that a number of names have been recommended since then that she keeps in an active file.
In revisiting the board’s Equity Policy adopted July 20, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Tiffany Brown said its goal is to create an equity-leadership team, but she wants to make sure its composition is equitable.
Brown said she will update the board on that work at each meeting, adding that she wants to talk to students and parents who have “lived experience” of problems.
“Our goal is to offer more voice to those who have either been quiet or have not been asked than to purely lift up the voices that we hear a lot from,” Brown said.
Williams said that this equity work and getting more parent and community engagement is not new for the board.
“We have been on this journey for quite some time,” Williams said. “We’re just adding to it and formalizing it.”
Kerr announced during the meeting that she was resigning as vice president of the board for the 2020-2021 school year. Kerr had been elected as vice president at the board’s previous meeting on July 20.
However, at that meeting, Kerr had nominated Benitez to be president but her motion failed, causing some controversy in the community, including a protest letter signed by Mayor Robert Garcia and nearly 50 others.
Kerr had expressed disappointment at the time that her colleagues did not support Benitez in that leadership role.
“I believe we must show our commitment to equity with our actions, not just our words,” she posted to her social media after the meeting.
Following her resignation Wednesday, Kerr nominated Benitez for vice president and asked for a second to her motion. Craighead seconded.
However, before a vote could be called, Benitez said he would not accept the position.
“I respectfully decline the nomination for vice president,” he said.
Meyer then nominated Williams, who also declined. Both Meyer and Williams will be retiring in December.
Williams nominated Meyer and Craighead seconded. The board cast four votes in favor of Meyer with Kerr abstaining.
“Mr. Meyer is the new vice president,” Craighead said.
Benitez said that declining his nomination doesn’t mean he’s not willing to work with his colleagues. Instead, he said it was personal reasons “because of the context of our board reorganization at our last meeting.”
“I think we need to do a lot building because these times have been divisive,” he said, adding that he would continue using his voice to build momentum, solidarity, commitment and encourage engagement, listening and participating.
He further stated that it was neither healthy nor appropriate to pit parents and teachers against administration, especially three weeks before the start of school.
“For the sake of our students, […] I’m encouraging folks to work together,” Benitez said.
“That doesn’t mean it’s always perfect.”
The next regular LBUSD Board meeting will take place at 1515 Hughes Way on Wednesday, Aug. 19