The courtyard of Hillview Middle School was teeming with hundreds of tweens for the first time in two years at Thursday morning's break.
The school's roughly 860 grade 6-8 students returned Aug. 19 to the Menlo Park campus full time yesterday after shutting down in March 2020 for distance learning amid pandemic lockdowns. Last October, the school reopened for in-person learning on a hybrid basis with just a fraction of the student body on campus.
"It's a little overwhelming," said seventh grader Zoe Deb, 12, on the first day of school. "It's a lot more people than last year." Class sizes were reduced to around 12 students last school year, with two groups rotating time in the classroom, meaning about a maximum of 180 students were on campus at any given time.
Deb noted that she does feel safer on campus having been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Eighth grader Harper Franklin, 12, said the campus feels a little more crowded than last school year, but his vaccination makes him feel a bit safer. (The California Department of Public Health no longer recommends physical distancing in schools so students no longer need to be spaced apart in classrooms or outside on playgrounds.)
"I'm slightly worried," he said of catching COVID-19. He's also acclimating to being around larger groups of people.
Some students opted to continue in the district's Virtual Academy for the 2020-21 school year.
Assistant Vice Principal Danielle O'Brien said students are "willing to do anything it takes" to be able to remain on campus, so administrators haven't had to give students too many reminders to keep their masks on. They relish the sense of normalcy that comes from returning to school, she said.
Principal Willy Haug said students are "so excited" to see one another, recalling hearing one student tell another: "I haven't seen you since fifth grade!"
Superintendent Erik Burmeister echoed the enthusiasm on the first day of school.
"We are thrilled to be open today for full-time, in-person school for everyone,” he said in an email. "It's been two years since we had a 'normal' first day, and the excitement is palpable. This is a remarkable community that can do really hard things together, like being the first to open last year and staying safe all year. We look forward to another year of engagement and learning."
Also on Aug. 19 in Atherton, Gail Mohr walked her 5-year-old daughter Lila to her first day of kindergarten at Laurel School's Lower Campus. It was a milestone for Mohr, as Lila is the youngest of her three children and last to start school.
"It was exciting, she was really ready and excited to go," Mohr said on Friday. "It felt good to be back and for her to be starting kindergarten with the school opened. There's relief that she will have a normal experience of being back in the classroom."
Last school year, kindergarteners were on campus, but on a part-time basis, with half the students attending in the morning and half in the afternoon.
Mohr said she plans to have her children tested for COVID-19 regularly, about every other week, to make sure her family isn't bringing the virus to campus. She pays extra attention to any sniffles these days, she said.
Teresa Brewer's son Hayden attended the district's Early Learning Center preschool virtually last year because they live with her 86-year-old mother and were extra cautious before they were vaccinated. He started kindergarten at Laurel in person last week and was curious and excited about his first day of in-person learning.
"I was really overwhelmed with how everyone at Laurel went out of their way to make a day that was really not normal feel as normal as possible for all of the children," Brewer said Friday. "Everyone has trepidation. ... It's an unprecedented, unimaginable challenge of trying to make an education system work in a pandemic. The staff all just exude this confidence and positivity; it helps to feed the kids. They're in a good place where they can learn.”
County quarantining procedures, changes from last school year
Last school year, district students who tested positive for COVID-19 would need to quarantine at home for two weeks, as would their classmates. This year's County Office of Education guidelines upend that with a less restrictive policy.
If a student tests positive for the virus, the Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD) nurse will work with the student's family to identify close contacts — interactions within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes with someone who is positive for COVID-19 The isolation period for a positive case is 10 days from symptom onset or test date, if asymptomatic, according to the district's 2021 safety plan.
No cases of the virus were reported to the district last week, according to the district's COVID data dashboard. One has been reported this week.
Teachers must maintain "desk maps" and students are expected to sit in the same seat each day, according to the district plan. This will help when the district does contact tracing following a positive case. Parents will be notified via letter if their child may have been in close contact with someone who tests positive, or if there is a positive case at their child's school.
Close contacts of positive cases are allowed to continue attending school as long as both parties were masked, but they are expected to stay away from extracurricular activities, such as sports.
"It is crucial that MPCSD maintains its indoor masking policy in order to follow these new quarantine guidelines, and that families follow the recommendations to quarantine from extracurricular activities," the plan states. "We want your children to be able to attend school in person as much as possible, and consistent mask wearing both indoors and outdoors will make that possible."
For now, MPCSD does not require students or staff to don masks outdoors, but highly encourages it. The school board will consider a resolution to require masking for students and staff outdoors when within 6 feet of others at its Aug. 26 meeting.
The district recommends that students over 12 be vaccinated, but public school districts can't mandate student vaccination until the state gives the go-ahead. Instead, they're asking families to confirm students' vaccination status voluntarily.
Over 95% of all staff are fully vaccinated, although it is not required by the district.
Staff members are asked to verify their vaccination status, said Parke Treadway, the district's public information officer. Everyone else is assumed to be unvaccinated and must do at least weekly testing, she noted.
Students in the TK-8 Woodside Elementary School District were among the few who returned to campus full time during the 2020-21 school year. Only 15 students completed last school year remotely, according to Superintendent Steve Frank, and no students have chosen to enroll in independent study this school year.
"While we have accomplished much in the face of this pandemic, we also know that we are not fully back to normal," he noted in the district's 2021-22 return to school plan. "Risk is a part of our lives in ways we never anticipated, but now cannot avoid. Approaching that risk with caution and a learner's mindset sets Woodside School up to design a new reality that includes keeping children in school. Please don't underestimate the impacts of COVID. When you follow the health and safety protocols, you are not just keeping yourself or your family safe, you are keeping everyone safe."
The district hasn't reported any cases, but noted that there were two positive cases amongst students or staff members before the first day of school.
He told parents in an Aug. 13 email that this school year will be challenging, and while masks are still required, "many other restrictions will cease," Frank said.
There will be no more cohorts, students will be able to play together at recess and lunch and the school bell schedules returned to pre-pandemic conditions, he said. "With the exception of masking and potential contact tracing, the school year should feel close to normal."
The district will offer weekly pooled COVID-19 testing to 10% of its students using Concentric in Menlo Park.
When a classroom "pool" tests positive, everyone in it will immediately be given an antigen test to single out the positive cases.
The district has a designated isolation room on campus for students and staff who exhibit virus-related symptoms, or who have tested positive for COVID-19.