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MB News

Manhattan Beach Schools Grapple With COVID Outbreaks

Jan 12, 2022 10:49AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Students and community members line up outside Mira Costa High School for COVID testing on January 2.

Manhattan Beach schools are grappling with COVID outbreaks that have many students and teachers out, as well as parents and staff frustrated by delays in reporting and testing.

As of January 13, the MBUSD COVID case dashboard showed 528 current confirmed cases among students and staff, or 7.8% of the total site population. Mira Costa High School appears to be the most deeply affected, with 255 students and 17 staff members confirmed positive, comprising 10% of the site population.

However, the total number of COVID-related absences is even greater than those numbers reflected on the MBUSD dashboard.

According to MBUSD officials, the dashboard only reflects positive cases for individuals who were at work or attending school while contagious. It does not include any other individuals who tested positive but were not on campus during their infectious period, or any other related absences. So for example, an individual who is out of school having contracted COVID over the winter break, or who is out on quarantine, or who is out because of experiencing COVID symptoms but has not yet received or recorded a positive result, would not be included in those numbers.

Overall, attendance was down more than 15 percent between January 3 and January 10, according to figures provided by the school district.

The large amount of absences have caused disruptions at schools, particularly with many teachers, substitutes, aides, and administrators out.

MBUSD Superintendent John Bowes told MB News that the district has been working to ensure that students are being supervised by certificated staff in situations where there are staff absences. "This has involved reassigning teacher specialists and teachers on special assignment to work with general education classes, having administrators take over classrooms, asking teachers to cover for each other during preparation periods, and, on occasion, having multiple classes convene in larger spaces where spacing and ventilation permit this," he said.

COVID Dashboard Complaints

During what was clearly a trying week for the district last week, the MBUSD COVID case dashboard became a flashpoint for criticism. Parents and staff have criticized the district for delays in updating and for not fully reflecting the extent of the outbreak (for example, on Friday showing only between 2 and 3 percent of the site population testing positive).

Shawn Chen, a Mira Costa High School teacher and president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association, noted that numbers recorded by teachers had been vastly outpacing what was reflected on the MBUSD dashboard. 

"To report so many fewer cases on the public dashboard misrepresents the risk being taken by parents who are sending their students to school," said Chen. "The lack of transparency also decreases confidence among the teachers. How can we trust that COVID compliance is in place when our observation of case numbers greatly exceeds the number being reported to the public? What plans are in place to create a system that offers more accurate information to both employees and the public?"

Bowes acknowledged the delays and said that the dashboard would continue to be updated to the best of the district's ability.

"The winter break and high volume of tests, coupled with delays in the reporting of test results, complicated accurate daily updating during the first week back from the winter break," he told MB News. "The dashboard is updated each school day, but it sometimes takes more than 24 hours for all district school site information to be reflected on the dashboard."

MB News received an unusually large number of messages and texts over the weekend from both parents and staff members who were frustrated by the lack of up-to-date information.

One parent, who did not want to be identified but called themselves "a huge supporter of the district and not about to bash them," reached out to MB News to express their frustrations after having talked to MBUSD district officials last week about lags in COVID positive case reporting. 

"I’ve been really frustrated by the lack of transparency and communication this week from [our school] and the district," the parent said. "It’s been a bummer, and really not okay given the severity of the surge."

Last week, the parent added, a district official had told them that the dashboard numbers "were off, by a lot."

"Being overwhelmed with all things COVID was the reason [they gave] for not making it a priority," the parent said.  "That’s not an excuse, honestly."

Testing Delays

Furthermore, parents and staff have expressed frustration that Malibu Medical Group, the testing company being used by MBUSD for on-site student testing, has been slow to provide results.

Many parents complained openly on a Manhattan Beach parent message board about not being informed in a timely fashion about test results. Parents were advised that if they did not hear anything to assume that test was negative. In some cases families waited nearly a week to get results.

But perhaps most concerning was the delay in reporting test results for students who tested positive. MB News spoke with two parents who learned more than two days after the fact that their student had tested positive.

Parent Rachel Gerrans told MB News that her son tested at school with Malibu Medical Group on last Monday, the first day of classes, and then he woke up on Tuesday with a fever. "I said, 'You can’t go to school,' but we also thought, 'Well, everyone keeps telling us you’ll hear from the school if you’re positive, so you must be negative.'"

Gerrans said that she ended up taking her son to an in-person clinic for a rapid test on Wednesday, which is how they found out he was positive. Only later Wednesday did they get the notice from Malibu that his results (from Monday) were positive.

Liz Laffoon, an MBMS teacher and also a parent, told MB News: "My 7th grader was tested during 6th period on the 6th [Thursday] and the email was sent to me late Sunday night [the 9th] to let us know he was positive. I didn’t see the email until 1:00 a.m. and then spent the next hour on my computer digging up the protocols for me and my high schooler to be able to attend work or school on Monday, sign up for a test with Beach Cities Health District - if needed - and make contingency plans."

MB News reached out to Malibu Medical Group for comment and has not yet received a response.

Bowes said that the district was working with Malibu Medical Group to improve the situation.

"We are working with Malibu Medical to improve notification turn-around times, and please watch for updates on this topic at [the Wednesday, June 12] meeting of the Board of Trustees," Bowes told MB News.

Editor's note: The MBUSD board had technical difficulties that prevented the livestream from running properly during the June 12 meeting. A partial video of the meeting (relating to COVID and parcel tax issues) can be seen here. (Click on Agenda Item D, then click on the video icon at the top of the page.)

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