A new waiver system could allow elementary schools serving transitional kindergartners through sixth graders to bypass mandated closures and reopen for in-person classes. But are local schools ready?
The California Department of Public Health released its guidelines for reopening in-person learning for elementary schools on Aug. 3.
Under state guidelines, middle schools and high schools can't reopen unless the county they are in has been off the state's watch list for 14 days.
The state's watch list tracks a number of standardized metrics such as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, hospital capacity and testing rates. San Mateo County was put on the watch list on Aug. 1 and it's not clear when it will come off it.
When it comes to local public schools, the Menlo Park City and Portola Valley Elementary school districts have decided to offer remote learning at least to start out the year. The Las Lomitas and Woodside Elementary school districts had yet to announce decisions.
Private schools, it appears, are also split on whether they plan to offer fully remote learning or intend to apply for a waiver to reopen in-person programs.
Nativity School in Menlo Park and some other local Catholic elementary schools planned to apply for a waiver, said Monsignor Steven Otellini, pastor at Nativity Church.
Woodland School in Portola Valley said it will "investigate a waiver" if that becomes available, to understand the guidelines and requirements for reopening the campus, according to an email from Head of School Jennifer Warren. However, she noted, as of Aug. 4, there wasn't waiver process available in the county.
Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton plans to offer remote learning throughout the fall term. According to spokesperson Elizabeth Nixon, the decision was made in consideration of the fact that the Sacred Heart Schools campus serves people of a wide variety of ages, from infants in child care to elderly nuns who live at a retirement center on-campus.
The decision was made to keep the students, faculty, staff and nuns "as safe as possible; ensures consistency and routine for students; enables our faculty to fully focus plans and preparation on one instructional model rather than three concurrently; and enables families adequate time to plan their respective schedules and address any childcare needs appropriately," she said.
Beechwood School, a private pre-K through eighth grade school on Terminal Avenue in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood, has a unique perspective, because it offered in-person learning for eight weeks this summer for kindergarten through fourth graders, according to Principal David Laurance, who retired last Friday.
But come the start of the new school year, the school plans to transition to remote learning full-time, Laurance said, attributing the decision to new principal Priscilla Taylor, who could not be reached by press time.
The in-person summer program was going well, he said. Each class of 18 students was broken into two cohorts that each spent four consecutive weeks in class over the summer. Students wore masks and sat at desks centered in masking tape squares on the floors set 6 feet apart. About 20% of families opted out of the in-person program, he said.
As of Monday, the start of the last week of the program, no teachers or students had tested positive for COVID-19.
"You can see how much the kids really need to be at school and how happy they are to see their teachers, friends and (the) campus," he said. "But as the summer has gone on, staff has gotten increasingly nervous."
The private school, which has historically operated year-round, serves families from Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. It has a relatively small student population and a relatively large campus, which made socially distancing more feasible than it might be for a larger public school, Laurance said.
He identified two problems that came up during the in-person summer program.
One was that keeping small children 6 feet apart at all times requires constant observation and reminders, especially during outdoor play time.
The students are good about not touching each other, wrestling, high-fiving or hugging, he said.
But keeping them from inching closer together when they interact is harder. And, he noted, many kindergarteners are still mastering the abstract concepts of what six is and how long a foot is.
Another challenge was the gray area of what to do when it's not a teacher or student who develops symptoms or tests positive for the new coronavirus, but someone one level removed, like a teacher's partner or a parent's coworker.
"Knowing what to do in those situations is really tricky," Laurance said. "We've had to deal with that throughout the whole eight weeks, six or seven times where a person has been exposed, (the test) comes up negative and we dodge another bullet."
In the new school year, the private school will be fully distance learning, though there is a possibility that the school will seek to offer on-campus remote learning to a small subset of students who struggle with remote learning, he said.
The county health department and office of education are developing a process for local schools to apply for such waivers, according to the education office's website.
According to state guidelines, schools that apply for waivers must develop a plan to address a long list of health and safety issues, including cleaning, hygiene, contact tracing, physical distancing, and student and staff testing, according to state guidelines. Applicants must also describe how students will be broken into small, stable cohorts and how movement will work within the school and its entrance and exit points. They also have to prove they consulted with labor, parent and community organizations.
The state is recommending that schools in counties with more than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period not be considered for waivers.