Ever since the coronavirus crisis forced all San Mateo County schools to close back in mid-March, one question has plagued students, parents, and teachers alike: Will students come back to campus in the fall?
At the high school level, the answer from the Sequoia Union High School District at a July 21 board meeting was no. Students will learn virtually, through Zoom and other tech tools, the district said, for at least the first quarter of the fall semester.
Now, with rising coronavirus case numbers in San Mateo County, many local elementary school districts are doing the same thing.
The Menlo Park City School District became the next domino to fall in a series of Midpeninsula school districts announcing online learning to start the semester, after the district board made the decision in a 4–1 vote at its July 30 meeting.
The Portola Valley School District, at a school board meeting July 24, also announced their students will start the new school year from home, with 100% online classes.
"We believe we have a defensible plan for on-campus learning, however there are factors beyond our control," Superintendent Roberta Zarea told the school board.
Zarea cited rising virus cases in San Mateo County — a total of 5,306 cases as of July 28 — and a lack of testing infrastructure as reasons for the district's decision to keep students and staff home.
Before Portola Valley School District, two other local schools had already made the same choice: Belle Haven Elementary in Menlo Park and Selby Lane Elementary in Atherton have both announced plans to start school with virtual learning.
The flurry of announcements comes as school districts have been scrambling to respond to recent health orders from the state.
On July 17, California's 1,037 school districts saw a major announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom about the fall semester: Schools in counties on the state's coronavirus watchlist must be off the list for 14 days before opening.
San Mateo County had been the only Bay Area county to stay off the state's watchlist until Wednesday, July 29.
Zarea said July 24 that district officials felt they should commit to virtual learning if school closures are inevitable. "Deciding now gives parents time to plan for fall rather than at the last minute," she said.
Districts are also preparing for how to potentially reopen. Even if students did go back to campus in the fall, there's no question that school would look very different.
For one, many elementary students will have to wear masks: The state's order requires face masks for third graders and above, and strongly recommends them for students in kindergarten through second grade.
School staff will also be required to keep 6 feet of distance from students, while students should maintain 6 feet from one another "as practicable," according to California Department of Public Health rules. Schools would also be required to check students' temperatures and symptoms daily.
Many elementary schools in the district have presented "hybrid" models in the event of school openings, meaning students would be on a split schedule — half online, half on-campus.
Some districts still in flux
While districts across the Midpeninsula — including Menlo Park City, Palo Alto Unified, Redwood City Elementary and Ravenswood Elementary — have announced plans, a handful of local schools haven't committed yet.
Woodside Elementary and Las Lomitas Elementary school districts have yet to confirm whether they will follow other districts' lead.
According to the Woodside Elementary School District website, information about the 2020-2021 school year reopening "will be communicated to parents on Friday, August 7." Superintendent Steve Frank did not respond to requests for further comment by The Almanac's press deadline.
Meanwhile, Las Lomitas Elementary School District is set to discuss the issue of virtual learning at its Aug. 5 board meeting, according to Superintendent Beth Polito. "LLESD currently has a full, five-day in-person program planned for fall," Polito said in an email. "However with the county on the precipice of being added to the Monitoring List, we will have to revisit that at our August 5th Board meeting."