Oak Knoll Elementary students on Monday sprawled in front of lap desks on yoga mats placed next to colorful dots 6 feet apart. Doors were left open and an air purifier was running. This is what in-person kindergarten looks like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are among the roughly 535 Menlo Park City School District students who returned to classrooms yesterday after the county approved the district's waiver application last week to reopen classrooms to kindergartners and first graders. The district's three elementary schools, Encinal, Laurel and Oak Knoll, are the first public schools in the county to reopen since schools closed down in March.
Students entered the school through multicolored balloon arches before having their temperatures taken. Their parents can't come on campus, but school officials said the arches were a special way to welcome the families, said Oak Knoll Principal Kristen Gracia.
"We've been spending the last six months planning for this moment," said Superintendent Erik Burmeister. "It's great to be living it. School is all about community and being together."
Bright clusters of painted stars, diamonds, dots, hearts and other shapes throughout campus help mark where students can stand to remain 6 feet apart. One teacher demonstrated how to keep distanced from other students by making "airplane arms" while standing in line to return to their classroom.
"Today was like a long overdue breath of fresh air watching our youngest students return to Oak Knoll," Gracia said. She said it's nice to "have life back" at the school. "I continue to be impressed with our teachers and staff as they, yet again, embark on this new adventure of in-person, socially-distanced learning."
The district requires face coverings for all staff and students, physical distancing and limiting gatherings, according to the statement. Students are used to wearing masks; it's "their new norm," Gracia said. Children have their own crayons, pencils and other art supplies, and wash their hands before touching shared items such as books, she said.
Eighty kindergarten and first graders have opted to continue online distance learning, said district public information officer Parke Treadway. The district has also offered a distance learning option, the Virtual Academy, and families enrolled in it will remain with distance learning even as the hybrid model students return to campus.
Kindergartners attend classes on either morning or afternoon schedules to accommodate smaller groups, with 10-12 students in each group, said Treadway.
First grade staffing will be increased to provide smaller class sizes, capped at 16 students, according to the report. First graders will attend class from 9 a.m. to noon, but the school day may be extended later after initial phase-in and review from teachers about what is working and what needs to be adapted. Distance learning, likely for smaller reading groups and specialists, would then be scheduled for the afternoon.
Worry among teachers
Not all teachers are thrilled to be back in classrooms.
On Monday, first grade teacher Laura Fujimoto said she felt more like a babysitter than a teacher since social distancing and sanitizing were monopolizing class time. She said she spent last Friday placing dots on the floor of her classroom to mark 6 feet of distance.
"I'm teaching social distancing and hand washing," said Fujimoto, who said she felt the reopening was rushed. "I'm able to accomplish a lot more over Zoom. We're going from one bad situation to another bad situation."
She conceded she is happy to see the students "in the flesh," but fears for the health of her mother and mother-in-law, both in their 70s, who are taking care of her two-and-a-half year-old while she teaches.
Gracia acknowledged the normal pace of instruction will be reasonably sacrificed as the school prioritizes the health and safety of students, staff and community during this pandemic.
"In-person learning is in many ways like chicken soup for the soul for our students, meeting their social-emotional needs," she said. "While everyone was honorably wearing their mask, it was clear that our students had bright smiles underneath and so did I."
Linda Cotter, a first grade teacher who has taught at Oak Knoll for 23 years, said she is hyper cautious about safety around spreading the virus. She is pleased there is COVID testing of staff members on Fridays through a partnership with Stanford Health Care.
"It's so fun to see them and meet them for the first time," she said. "I have mixed feelings. Distance learning was hard work. I'm really happy for the parents and the kids (to be back on campus)."
First graders Elle and Bella said they were most pleased with being able to see their friends in person, "not just on screen."
The district's school board voted to apply for a waiver to reopen during its Sept. 10 meeting, and applied for the waiver on Sept. 11.
The county moved out of the most restrictive purple or "widespread" risk tier to the red or "substantial" risk tier on Sept. 22.
The school board has scheduled a special meeting on Thursday at 5 p.m. on Zoom to discuss how to proceed with further return of its students.