After more than two months away, special needs students will soon return to Lagunitas School for in-person instruction. The class is part of a pilot program run by the Marin County Office of Education meant to model safe practices for schools to reopen in the fall.
The model hinges on robust contact tracing, heavy sanitation and stable cohorts of students who do not mix with others. When students arrive at school, they will go to a check-in station where their temperature is taken and their parents complete a four-question survey about the family’s health. Cohorts are limited to 12 students, and students will be in the same group each day. Everyone over age 12 will be required to wear a face covering.
Staff will use their phones to scan a QR code when they come and go from work, so if someone tests positive, public health officials can trace and isolate their contacts instead of closing down the entire school.
Restrooms are limited to one user at a time, and janitors will disinfect classrooms at night. Parents are supposed to provide snacks and lunches, and staff will reduce clutter and sanitize often.
Marin’s Community School, an alternative program in San Rafael for students who have fallen behind, was the first of five schools to try this model. Seven students attended on Monday, and another group of 12 attended on Tuesday. By the end of the week, teachers will have seen more than 50 students.
The office of education is working with families at Lagunitas School to determine participation before launching the program in the valley. Depending on its success, the office of education could open more of its classes for summer school.
“We hope to learn a lot by doing this to get us ready for a much bigger summer program and, of course, for fall, when we have to get students back,” said Ken Lippi, the assistant superintendent of the county education office. “Everything we are learning by opening our classrooms we are turning into templates and guides for the districts.”
The cohort model is based on how pop-up childcare centers for healthcare workers have operated since a shelter-in-place order was issued on March 16. Public health officials have told superintendents that groups of 12 would be the most restrictive requirement if schools reopen.
And though the allowable cohort size could increase, the reality is that classrooms will likely not be full in the fall. So schools are looking to teach in a hybrid way, with some instruction in person and the rest online.
Seeing kids in person, even if just for a day or two a week, would help teachers and students be on the same page. Teachers have put forth an admirable effort to implement distance learning, but issues with internet connectivity and devices and a lack of engagement have made it difficult to reach every student.
“Every so often I’ll have a meeting, and it will feel like I covered a little bit of content, maybe I got a half-hours’ worth of teaching in,” said Lauren Pollak, who teaches first and second grades at Bolinas School. “But it’s punctuated by a lot of less successful experiences, and I think that is pretty universal for all of the teachers.”
Teachers have observed that students who struggle in regular class are the same ones who struggle with distance learning. The level of parent engagement is a large factor in student success, and many parents are tired and struggling with their mental health; they are worried about their finances, their job or their relatives, Bolinas teacher Willow Regnery said.
Ms. Regnery surveyed staff and her fifth and sixth grade students to figure out their internet speed, and responses ranged widely.
“For me, the real blaring issue is the inequity that is inherent in the disparate internet speeds, and the fact that some kids still don’t have reliable internet in their homes, and some kids do,” she said. “And it’s pretty clear who is succeeding at distance learning, and who is not.”
It has been a constant struggle to get working devices to staff and students in the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District. Hotspots that provide wireless internet using a cell signal are constantly being swapped out because they aren’t working, and students who don’t use hotspots are subject to the whims of shoddy internet. The district distributed Chromebooks to older students and iPads to the lower grades, but teachers quickly ran into technical difficulties when using Zoom on the tablets. Last week, the district ordered 80 Chromebooks for students and eight MacBooks for teachers.
District leaders across Marin are being cautious not to put too much energy into planning because the circumstances of reopening are out of their control, but discussions have begun. School boards will make the ultimate decisions to reopen and in what capacity.
At last week’s Bolinas-Stinson board meeting, trustee Steve Marcotte pushed for more stakeholders to be involved in the reopening decision. On Tuesday, trustees will host a special meeting to outline potential models and to listen to concerns.
“It is not as simple as a date and number of kids. How do we configure the room? What do we need to buy?” he said. “We are impacting people’s livelihoods by opening or not... This is one of our biggest decisions ever.”
Bob Raines, the superintendent of Shoreline Unified School District, said he is watching the county education office’s pilot programs closely to see if his district’s special education classes can open for summer school. To plan for the fall, he has convened a working group tasked with identifying what is determined by state and county governments and what will be determined by the district.
How to bus students, disinfect classrooms and distribute protective gear still needs to be hashed out. Shoreline tried to order gloves, masks and sanitizer weeks ago, but the supplier canceled the order. Mr. Raines said he is now working with other districts to purchase in bulk. The issue of how to accommodate high school students, who typically take several classes each day with different single-subject teachers, also has to be worked out.
One group of students who will not return to campus is the graduating seniors at Tomales High, but the school is still committed to celebrating their accomplishments. The school is holding out hope that health officials will allow an in-person graduation on Aug. 1 on the football field. In a survey of the 33 graduating students, most preferred to wait to celebrate graduation in person.