The Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD) will submit a waiver application to the San Mateo County public health department requesting permission to resume in-person instruction for kindergarteners and first graders, the district announced Sept 11.
The unanimous decision came in a vote during the district's Sept. 10 school board meeting, with a plan to apply for the waiver the following day. If approved by the public health department, the district's target opening date would be Sept. 28.
"The board feels that the academic and social-emotional risks to young students from being away from in-person learning outweigh potential health risks from bringing students back on campus," the district said in a statement. "Board members commented that the medical experts in this week’s panels concurred that MPCSD’s plan is comprehensive, safe, and that they see no reason not to reopen for kindergarten and first grade students at this time."
District officials said the next two weeks would be spent preparing classrooms, implementing staff testing to be coordinated through Stanford Health Care, and holding parent information sessions to explain what school will look like under the waiver.
A survey done by the district suggested a majority of parents support the return to school for kindergarteners and first graders. On Friday, Aug. 28, MPCSD sent a survey to all parents of K-1 students who opted for hybrid learning. When asked, "Would you send your child to school in person under a waiver?" 90.3% of respondents said yes and 9.7% said no.
Although San Mateo County is currently on the state's "purple" or "widespread" tier for coronavirus case numbers, making county schools unable to open, elementary schools that successfully apply for the California Department of Public Health's waiver may be allowed to open. The waiver can apply to transitional kindergarten through sixth grade.
Menlo Park City School District, which has Oak Knoll, Encinal and Laurel elementary schools along with Hillview Middle School, announced in a July 30 board meeting that the district would start the fall semester fully online. The school year began on Aug. 20.
Some teachers not happy
Several teachers who spoke to The Almanac said they disagreed with district's decision to apply for a waiver, which could result in K-1 teachers going back to school if approved.
Sydney Merk, who teaches first grade at Encinal, said while she understand families' needs for childcare during the pandemic, she has health concerns abut returning to in-person instruction. "I realize I am immensely lucky, because the district has very rigorous safety program. But I am 55 years old and I have a mother in her 80s, and the county is still not off the watch list. That's not a risk I want to take," she said.
Merk said that while she felt the teachers and students would likely return to school under the waiver, she was worried about how schooling will go. "There is so much interaction, between students and teachers during a normal school year, that won't be able to happen," she said. "I'm also concerned about students ability to learn reading when the teacher has a face mask on and kids can't see her mouth."
Teacher Elizabeth Harrison said she supports the reopening of schools and the district's decision this week.
"I feel very strongly that the small risk of contagion, illness or even death does not possibly weigh more strongly than my duty to serve the students and get them out of the house, off screens, back with their peers, learning in person, eye to eye with their teachers," she said. "Excessive screen time and online learning is detrimental to students' health and development. We are paid very well in this district to serve the children and I don't agree with any factions of teachers who choose to avoid this work due to fear or hysteria."
Grant Conour, president of the Menlo Park Education Association, said in a statement emailed to The Almanac that he was confident that teaching staff would "provide their students with the high-quality education that Menlo Park City School District is known for."
"We will continue to work together with the board and the superintendent to minimize risk to the community to the extent possible, and in turn ask for the cooperation and compliance of the Menlo Park community with state and county health guidelines to help keep our schools safe," he said.