San Marino Unified Receives Golden Bell Award for Innovation in a Time of Crises
SMUSD receives CSBA Golden Bell Award on December 1, 2022. Photographed: Jane Chon (Board Member), C. Joseph Chang (Board Member), Dr. Linda de la Torre (Superintendent), Dr. Stephen Choi (Chief Technology Officer / COVID Compliance Officer), Shelley Ryan (Board Member), Joanna Lam (Incoming Board Member), Francesca Gill (Incoming Board Member).
The COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for educators. The San Marino Unified School District (“SMUSD”) rose to the challenge with the COVID-19 Compliance Team (“CCT”). The CCT is a small but diverse group of educators, tasked with ensuring compliance with public health orders and implementation of risk-mitigating protective measures for reopening school after the COVID-19 shutdowns. In establishing COVID-19 safety protocols to protect SMUSD staff and students, the CCT developed unique programs modeled by other school districts. The CCT used data to drive decision-making processes, with the support of school board leaders who facilitated partnerships with various community members and groups to further the goals of the CCT. The SMUSD CCT program is evidence that innovation in schools is attainable, even during a global pandemic.
Background. In June 2020, the SMUSD formed the School Re-opening Task Force (“SRTF”) with the specific goal of developing a comprehensive school reopening plan. A large group of stakeholders, including SMUSD staff, faculty, parents, students, and community members, researched five areas: (1) teaching and learning, (2) health and safety, (3) social-emotional support, (4) family and community engagement, and (5) operations and nutrition. Within two months, the SRTF developed a plan with a number of recommendations on how to safely reopen the schools. To quickly and efficiently execute the programs recommended by the large group of stakeholders, the SMUSD evolved the SRTF into the CCT, a smaller team better suited to implement the schools reopening plan.
Goals & Outcomes That Meet the Needs of Staff and Students. Educators and students transitioned to distance learning when schools physically closed in response to COVID-19. This paradigm shift to distance learning required educators to quickly acquire new technical skills and adapt their teaching. Students pivoted to distance learning, but some students struggled with the challenges and limitations of online classes. After almost a year of distance learning, it became clear that in-person learning was fundamentally essential for most if not all students. Schools grappled with the question of how best to quickly roll out COVID-19 safety-related programs, including testing, contact tracing, and vaccination clinics. The CCT worked to establish such programs, with the overarching goal of providing multiple layers of protection to students and staff. According to SMUSD Chief Technology Officer Dr. Stephen Choi, who serves as the District’s COVID Compliance Officer, ”the goal of the CCT is not about simply bringing staff and students back to school, but to make our schools safer than staying at home.”
The CCT produced clearly tangible outcomes. The CCT created a COVID-19 compliance team website to communicate school-related pandemic information that seemed to change on a daily basis. The CCT also created custom signage, flyers, banners, posters, stickers, and other materials, to highlight COVID-19 safety protocols such as symptom screening, distancing, handwashing, and masking. Furthermore, the CCT coordinated with various school departments to install floor markings, plexiglass barriers, and air purifiers throughout the district, as well as temperature scanners at school entry points. Two years later, these tangible outcomes are still prominently displayed throughout SMUSD campuses and facilities as the pandemic persists.
The CCT also produced many intangible outcomes. The CCT continues to deliver education and communication on the latest developments of COVID-19. The CCT manages three COVID testing programs to make testing accessible for all staff and students: (1) daily symptomatic rapid antigen testing at all schools, (2) weekly asymptomatic PCR testing in partnership with a local clinical lab, and (3) self-test kit distribution. The CCT also successfully hosted various clinics to vaccinate both staff and students. These vaccination clinics were well-attended and well-received by staff and parents. The CCT created online self-registration forms repurposed from volunteer sign-up tools and designed certain vaccination clinics to be age-appropriate. For example, on November 12, 2021, the CCT converted the middle school cafeteria into a kid-friendly movie theater experience staffed with high-school student and parent volunteers, and provided 300 elementary students with their 1st vaccine dose. Finally, the CCT performs detailed case management of positive cases and extensive contact tracing to ensure that those individuals who are infected or potentially exposed to COVID-19 are informed and supported.
CCT Innovation Driven by Technology & Data. The CCT consistently used technology and data to guide, innovate, and improve its initiatives. The CCT routinely used technology-based communications tools to send notifications and short polls to staff and families via SMS text messaging, email, and the SMUSD mobile app. The CCT relied on staff and parent feedback to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine clinics and testing efforts. The CCT routinely analyzed the test positivity rate of the SMUSD in comparison to city and county levels. The CCT’s data-driven approach found that the District’s test positivity rate consistently stayed below 1% throughout the 2021-2022 school year, even when there were surges of infection in the larger community. Also, the CCT’s survey of staff and student vaccination rates before and after hosting vaccine clinics found that within 6 months of eligibility, 96% of employees and 87% of students were fully vaccinated. The CCT’s data also determined that within 6 weeks of ages 5+ vaccine eligibility, 82% of SMUSD elementary students were fully vaccinated. The CCT’s outreach and education efforts contributed to these notable metrics. Overall, the data-driven approach used by CCT continuously improved SMUSD’s ability to serve students and staff while mitigating risks.
Exemplary CCT Partnerships & Board Leadership. The SMUSD Board of Education provided exemplary leadership to support the work of the CCT. At the initial onset of COVID-19, long-standing SMUSD board member C. Joseph Chang alerted the SMUSD community about the dangers of this disease. Mr. Chang also spearheaded partnerships by tapping into his professional network of medical health experts and community organizations. The board’s efforts in creating partnerships inspired others, including parents with COVID testing connections, to step forward and partner with the SMUSD. When COVID-19 vaccines were scarce, it was SMUSD’s partnership with Keck Medicine of USC that allowed employees to receive the vaccine. When COVID-19 testing was limited, it was SMUSD’s partnership with the Chinatown Service Center to logistically provide testing to all employees. Similarly, the Board encouraged partnership-friendly opportunities to help the SMUSD secure personal protective equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer. On July 13, 2021, in a regular Board of Education meeting, the SMUSD Board honored Keck Medicine of USC, Albertsons, COVID Testing 24, and the Chinatown Service Center for their continued partnerships in supporting the employees and students of the SMUSD.
The SMUSD Board also made timely and appropriate decisions to support the work of CCT. Just prior to the reopening of schools on August 10, 2021, the Board solicited input from the community and directed the District to continue to follow the protocols of the local County public health department, rather than develop a different set of policies. The SMUSD Board also supported the CCT in its creation of a robust COVID testing program when designated federal Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity (ELC) grant funds became available. Despite a small group of vocal parents who argued that testing for children was not necessary, the Board supported the work of the CCT to offer testing to all staff and students. The Board reinforced District accountability through its vetting process to ensure that funds and resources were best utilized for the safety and protection of staff and students.
The CCT is Sustainable and Replicable. The work of the CCT represents a framework for how a K-12 school district can protect staff and students through an emergent public health crisis. While COVID-19 is anticipated to stabilize in the future, new or unknown infectious diseases may be discovered that will threaten health and safety. The CCT’s innovative use of technology and data, combined with exemplary board leadership, may be replicated in other school districts. The CCT’s streamlined agile structure provides sufficient flexibility to address the ever-changing demands placed on the District by the pandemic. While some initiatives of the CCT, such as supplies and staff training, may need to be budgeted, the CCT’s innovative approach to using technology and partnerships do not require significant funds. Throughout the pandemic, many neighboring districts reached out to SMUSD for guidance on how to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19.
September 20, 2022 - The SMUSD COVID-19 Compliance Team hosted a visit from CSBA to highlight and share the District's innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic.