EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a collaboration between digital journalist David Mendez and multimedia journalist Zack Tawatari. To watch the video report that accompanies this story, click the arrow above.

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — More than 100 people attended an outdoor rally in Manhattan Beach, headlined by actor Vince Vaughn, urging elected officials to reopen local schools and youth sports. Many of the speakers in attendance argued that the mental and emotional risks of distance learning, and the relative isolation associated with it, are greater than the risks of catching COVID at properly-operated school sites.

“The children will be safer in school where they have the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines implemented, and kids will be safer on the sports field because the CDC guidelines will be implemented,” said event organizer Tiffany Lynne Wright, a Manhattan Beach resident. 

What You Need To Know

  • More than 100 people gathered at an outdoor rally in Manhattan Beach, urging elected officials to reopen schools and youth sports

  • Organizers of the event say that they've found widespread support for a safe opening, though it's not commonly agreed what a "safe opening" might look like

  • In recent weeks, COVID cases have spiked in Los Angeles County and nationwide; LA County is now in the most restrictive tier of the state's reopening plan

  • High school students admit that their mental health has taken a hit during the pandemic and online classes, but some are worried against reopening too soon


While Vaughn’s was the name on the banner, he was among the most concise speakers of the event.

“There’s a lot of families that are really struggling with social distancing, you know; not all the kids are succeeding on (Zoom) calls, and they need some extra support…some of their study skills aren’t developing in a way that they feel confident for future of their academics,” Vaughn said. “So we feel like there’s room for people to stay home and there’s room to figure out safe ways of geting kids some support in person.”

Though the local Manhattan Beach Unified School District is offering distance learning, with in-person education soon to open for students enrolled in Transitional Kindergarten through Second Grades, Wright’s children are at schools spread across the west. Her oldest, she said, is at a boarding school in Utah, and her youngest (a special-needs student) is in a private school in Orange County, commuting in a regular carpool; the middle son is undergoing distance learning at the local middle school.

“I think we recognize that, while it’s challenging for our kids, they do have technology and things to help,” said Ann Marie Whitney, who organized the event with Wright. “Some school districts don’t have that, and it’s even more challenging. We recognize how hard it is on our kids, and we want everybody to be elevated and everybody to follow the same CDC guidelines and have the same opportunities.”

When asked what COVID-19 transmission indicators she and other parents thought were proper for reopening schools, Wright said that “the metrics we want are the CDC metrics. We’re not asking for anything more.”

On Nov. 17, The Hill reported that the CDC had “quietly removed” documents for reopening schools. A CDC spokesperson told The Hill that “some of the prior content was outdated…the site has been updated to reflect current knowledge about COVID-19 and schools.”

The CDC does still host documents suggesting indicators and thresholds for risks of COVID in schools. One indicator is the rate of new COVID cases per 100,000 people over the last 14 days. Communities with a 14-day case rate between 50 and 200 cases are considered to be areas with a “higher risk of transmission in schools.” Manhattan Beach and its surrounding Beach Cities communities would appear to be in that category based on a review of two weeks of L.A. County COVID reporting statistics.

Currently, all schools in Los Angeles County may open with a maximum of 25% of full student capacity on campus, except for schools (like all of Manhattan Beach’s public elementary schools) that have received TK-2 waivers. Schools with TK-2 waivers may have all TK-2 students for in-person instruction and up to 25% of total student capacity for grades 3 and up.

Five Manhattan Beach public elementary schools are among 47 public schools granted TK-2 waivers to open by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. To date, 147 elementary schools have been granted TK-2 waivers, though a growing number of schools have submitted applications for waivers.

Wright said that she and other parents have met with officials from across the South Bay and L.A. County, and found near-universal support for opening schools as quickly as possible, as safely as possible, including from Supervisor Janice Hahn. Hahn was not in attendance as she sought to provide an example to her constituents to avoid gatherings.

In a letter to the organizers, however, Hahn said she shares the organizer's goal of returning students to classrooms quickly and safely. "I am hopeful that as long as we get our County’s case count back down to the safer levels we saw just a few weeks ago, you should look forward to third through sixth graders getting back to school in January," Hahn said.

That might take sharp improvement, however. As of this week, a severe spike in COVID cases placed all of Southern California into the most restrictive tier of the state’s reopening plan, keeping schools and many nonessential businesses closed.

For Shawn Chen, the President of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association, having a rally to reopen schools is “a little silly…when we’re already opening schools.”

“They’ll say things like, we believe in masks, and we think that things should be safe, but they don’t have the first clue about how schools operate and what needs to be done to make sure they’re safe,” Chen said. From what she’s seen on social media among her Manhattan Beach community, “it’s as if COVID doesn’t exist” for those insisting on reopening schools.

The Manhattan Beach schools, Chen feels, are in a “comfortable position” to support its students from afar, and she feels that “in many ways, I’m able to work with my students in a much more direct fashion than I can sometimes even in person.” Her students, she’s found, have been resilient during the challenges of the pandemic. “I marvel at the lack of confidence people who make this argument (that students are suffering)…people don’t think their kids have the internal grit to get through life without someone handing them things.”

Dr. Martha Koo, who spoke at the rally, is a board member-elect of the Beach Cities Health District. This public health district provides health education, grants, classes, and programs to the community and works closely with the school districts in Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach. In an interview early Wednesday, Koo said her priority “is to emphasize how important for social and emotional wellness attending schools and having the ability to participate in competitive sports are.”

Koo cited a recently-published report from the CDC stating that mental health-related ER visits among children during the pandemic have increased by 24% for elementary-age students and 31% for middle-to-high-school-age students.

“There’s an abundance of research that documents social isolation and social disconnection being a huge predictor of negative mental health, particularly in children and adolescents,” Koo said, specifying that research is not tied to pandemics specifically.

When asked what indicators she feels would be prudent for reopening schools, Koo, a psychiatrist, stated that epidemiology isn’t her expertise and declined on specifics. “But I don’t think our thinking should be that we wait until it’s all under control before we open. We’ve learned an incredible amount about the virus, and what prevents transmission and keeps us safe.”

During the rally, Manhattan Beach Mira Costa High School students and sisters Genevive and Gabriella Olson shared their pleas to open the schools.

The pandemic “has taken my whole life form me. It feels like a lot of adults aren’t hearing our voices,” Gabriella said, as a woman yelled, “we hear you, girl!” in solidarity. “I’ve never had a problem with being motivated and positive” until the pandemic, Gabriella continued, saying that her grades have fallen off and she’s fallen out of contact with her friends.

High school students Brooke Goldman, a junior at Redondo Union High School, and Alex Jeffords, a junior at Mira Costa, are members of BCHD’s Youth Advisory Council, a group of more than 80 middle and high school students from Beach Cities schools. They both believe that the pandemic has had serious impacts on them and their peers.

They’ve found difficulty in completing schoolwork and paying attention in long, drawn-out online classes. The classwork, they’ve both found, has tilted away from lectures and toward busywork. 

“I think that some kids are feeling a little isolated,” Alex said. “I know that a lot of kids are doing some version of OK — toward the beginning of the isolation, I know that I wasn’t feeling the best emotionally…but now, my friend group has started to become a little more content with what we’re doing.”

But they’ve both faced a resurgence in their own mental health challenges. Brooke, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, said that her ASD symptoms have worsened over the period of the quarantine. Repetitive tics, anxieties, and insomnia have all returned for her.  Alex, who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, said that he’s also found a correlation between a decline in his mental health and the COVID quarantine.

But when asked, both were concerned about returning to schools too soon and were uncertain how the organizers of Wednesday’s rally defined a “safe” reopening.

“I don’t want to go back until there’s a vaccine…to even have half of my school back would still mean 1,500 kids (on campus),” Brooke said. “It’s OK to want it, but it’s getting to a point where no one I know but online parents I’ve seen are saying it. I don’t think they get the gravity, and they’re not thinking of a bigger picture, and that’s when it starts to get dangerous.”

Alex said that it depends on what their idea of safe is — and what local, state, and federal governments believe is safe.

Over the summer, he said, Mira Costa held a town hall for community questions and input. “One of the responses was, my kid is having nightmares because he can’t see his friends, and this is why we want the schools open,” Alex recalled from the meeting. “I think that is irresponsible. That shouldn’t be a qualifying reason why schools should be open.

“Schools should be open because it’s a safe learning environment,” Alex said. “But in order for there to be a safe learning environnent, we have to be safe from the virus.”