Masked first graders lined up in areas marked with orange traffic cones in the Woodside Elementary School parking lot on a crisp, sunny day Tuesday, Dec. 1, waiting for rides home from parents who aren't allowed on campus.
Woodside is one of just a few school districts on the Peninsula that received waivers from San Mateo County's Office of Education to have students return for in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Students in other nearby districts have now been learning from home for almost nine months.
Five grades of the K-8 school's 369 students have returned to classrooms. The district began to phase in students, starting with kindergartners and first graders in October aside from five cohorts of about 30 at-risk students who returned to campus in August.
Unlike nearby school districts that have reopened, the district has not instituted a hybrid learning model. Students are either signed up for virtual classes or in-person classes. It's also one of the only local districts with almost every grade level back on campus, said Superintendent Steve Frank. About 84% of the student body is returning to the school, with 45 students who have chosen to continue with virtual learning, he said.
In-person learning has been challenging, but worth it for the mental health of students, Frank said. He received five emails from parents of eighth graders since they returned to campus on Monday, all saying something like "thanks for giving me my child back."
"It's like trying to put a 100,000-piece puzzle together," he said. "There are so many guidelines and rules and it's stretching our resources."
There is the coordination of multiple lunches and recesses, daily temperature checks and specific drop-off and pickup times. Officials installed 50 hand sanitizer stations and four portable outdoor hand-washing sinks. Red dots painted on cement mark how to stand 6 feet apart.
The district saved close to $1 million in costs last spring while students were distance learning, according to Frank. But this fall it has taken on half a million dollars in expenses for new COVID-related safety precautions, which include the administrative costs of testing staff members weekly, HEPA air filter installations, building outdoor classrooms and hiring additional substitute teachers to oversee more fragmented students groups.
The district received $180,000 in Child Care Relief Fund grant funds from San Mateo County to help county schools that have been adversely impacted by COVID, Frank said.
The district budget will be on the agenda at the Dec. 15 school board meeting.
'Roller coaster' of emotions
Longtime staff member Sharon Lacrosse, the school librarian, describes her experience returning to campus as a "roller coaster" emotionally. She's been a little anxious about catching the virus with the number of cases rising.
"I go up and down," she said. "There's times I wonder if we're doing the right thing, but there are so many safety precautions. It's a big campus and we have so much outdoor space; we're lucky and unique."
She said the slow rollout of grades returning to school has eased her mind.
Although she brings boxes of books to classrooms, the library isn't open for students to check out books. She's also dusting off her social studies teaching skills to fill gaps in district staffing.
Despite the costs, school officials have accomplished their goal of getting kids back to school safely. Frank said this has been the only school year in his nearly two decades with the district he hasn't seen a kindergartner cry on the first day of school. In fact, he saw children jump out of their family's cars upon arriving at Woodside Elementary.
On Monday, Dec. 7, fourth and fifth graders will join the rest of the school in returning to campus, completing the return of student body members who have chosen to learn in person.
The district has yet to report a positive COVID case among students and staff.
For more information on the district's return to campus, go here.