Finding connection and belonging are top of mind to Hillview Middle School's Interim Principal Danielle O'Brien, as students return to the Menlo Park campus on Thursday, Aug. 18.
"This year there's a lot of hope and positivity about coming back to school," said O'Brien last week as she prepared to welcome students back. She became interim principal on July 1, replacing Willy Haug, who moved into a district role as director of technology & innovation. "COVID was a time of disconnection and bringing the kids back is about wrapping our arms around all students."
The school is opening a new wellness center, the Hawks Nest this school year, she said. Kids can drop in at brunch and lunch at the center where counselors will host mindfulness days, groups for students to connect and a mental health club. Hillview administrators worked with Chris Arrington, the district wellness coordinator, to create the space.
The district's 2021-22 budget includes $45,000 for mental health services.
O'Brien, who lives in San Francisco and grew up in Marin, worked at Hillview for 12 years. She started at the school as an English teacher before transitioning to an administrative role as assistant principal, a position she held for four years. She holds a bachelor's degree in managerial economics from University of California at Davis and a second bachelor's degree in history from Humboldt State University. She also holds a teaching credential from Humboldt State and master's degree in educational leadership and administration from San Francisco State University.
"I wouldn't drive here every day from the city if it wasn't the best place," she said. "It's the people, the community, the finest teachers and students who are motivated to learn and say thank you at the end of class."
The Menlo Park City School District Board of Trustees hired O'Brien for the interim role for the 2022-23 school year in June. The district will carry out a search for a permanent principal role. O'Brien isn't yet sure if she'll apply for the role.
She is the school's first female principal, according to Trustee Francesca Segrè's newsletter.
Although cases in San Mateo County are down from the omicron surge that began in mid-May, according to The New York Times, transmission rates are still high, with an average of 203 cases per day, as of Wednesday, Aug. 17.
"Everyone is a little concerned (about COVID)," O'Brien said.
Masks are still strongly recommended indoors, but not required, in the district.
Last school year, O'Brien told The Almanac that 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.
The district encourages gatherings to take place outdoors as much as possible, according to its 2022-23 COVID safety plan.
Students and staff who become sick at school are offered a rapid COVID-19 test if they are registered in the district testing system. Students who do not have permission for on-site rapid tests will be sent home to test, according to the plan.
Parents are asked to keep their kids home if they have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher, or have a low grade fever with accompanying cold or flu symptoms. Students and staff experiencing any of these symptoms should stay home and take a COVID-19 test.
They can return to school if it's been at least 24 hours since a fever without medication; other symptoms have improved; and they test negative for COVID-19, according to the safety plan. Alternatively, they can provide documentation that the symptoms are typical of their underlying condition (like allergies or asthma), or a healthcare provider has confirmed an alternative diagnosis, or it's been at least 10 days since symptoms began.
All unvaccinated district staff must test for COVID-19 once a week.
The state no longer supports the pooled testing program. The district encourages families to use rapid tests at home, especially following travel, when someone in the household feels ill, or three to five days following an exposure to COVID-19. MPCSD maintains its contract with Curative for PCR testing at Hillview. This testing is open to the community as long as Curative chooses to maintain this site, and is available for district families' use.
Quarantine is not recommended following an exposure at school, regardless of vaccination or masking status, as long as the exposed person doesn't develop symptoms or test positive COVID-19. The district recommends that students test within three to five days of exposure.
The district will continue to update its COVID-19 case count dashboard on its website.