Some 87 students returned to Corte Madera School this week for the first time since March. They came equipped with sweatshirts, beanies and jackets to weather the outdoor learning space that's safer than being indoors amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but more difficult as the temperatures fall.
These fourth and fifth graders join younger students who began in-person learning in the Portola Valley School District over the last month.
During the first day of school, Principal Kristen Shima said students were happy to see their friends and teachers in the flesh. There are many social and emotional benefits to students learning in person, she said.
"If you ask the kids, they just really like being on campus and having live interaction even though they're in masks," said Shima, who has worked for the school for 15 years and became principal this year. "Some of these kids have been very isolated."
Teachers are reverting back to paper and pencil instruction to get students off screens after months of online learning, she said.
Teachers can provide more one-on-one support to students in person (though the district only allows teachers to be close to a student for up to five minutes at a time, fully masked), Shima said.
Teachers do need to frequently remind students — who are now attending classes on campus twice a week — to stay separated, Shima said.
"It's just not natural for kids to be apart (physically in person)," she said. "We can only have one kid sit at a table. ... We're running a really tight ship, making sure these cohorts are separated."
Shima said the school's top priority is to keep students healthy and in classrooms. Office staff is tested once a week, while teachers are tested every two weeks, she said.
Close to 250 students in grades TK through fifth grade (about 50% of the total student population) are on district campuses as of this week, said Superintendent Roberta Zarea in an email. District officials plan to have middle schoolers return to Corte Madera in December, Shima said.
Some students, however, are continuing with distance learning.
To keep schools virus-free, district officials have advised families to avoid unnecessary travel, reconsider large gatherings and continue to social distance, move activities outdoors, wear a mask and wash hands frequently.
"The pace at which we can keep opening our campuses depends on the ability of our whole community to adhere to safe behaviors," Zarea wrote to families in a Nov. 8 message. "The precautions we take at school can only minimize the spread of the virus. Whether the virus is present on our campuses depends on the choices people make at home."