Lagunitas School is the only elementary school in Marin County that hasn’t brought students back to campus. On Monday, that will change: The state moved Marin into a less restrictive tier of reopening, allowing the 215 students in the valley to return for four hours of outdoor learning a week, with an emphasis on social and emotional support.
Lagunitas has been in a holding pattern since November, when Marin was moved from the red tier to the purple tier as case rates skyrocketed. While other school districts scrambled to get 10 percent of students back on campus to allow themselves to continue reopening under the purple tier, Lagunitas chose to stay closed as the holidays approached. That decision meant that the school could not reopen without teacher and parent consensus until Marin moved back to the red tier, which happened on Wednesday.
Yet the teachers’ union and administration are still in disagreement over whether teachers should be fully vaccinated before returning to a more robust schedule, with academics taught in the classroom. The county will begin vaccinating school employees next week.
Meanwhile, parents have been frustrated at the slow pace, and 22 students have disenrolled.
“When we are back together, I think we should all think about how we’ll rebuild our community,” principal Laura Shain said at a reopening task force meeting on Tuesday.
Covid-19 transmission has slowed after a deadly winter for the entire nation, with over 3,000 people dying each day across the United States. Marin peaked at 172 new cases on Jan. 6 but is now seeing an average of 24 new cases a day. San Mateo joined Marin as the second county in the region to move into the red tier, and other Bay Area counties are expected to move forward in the coming weeks.
West Marin has seen just 12 new cases this month, and weekly testing in the San Geronimo Valley was discontinued because of the low number of positive cases.
Vaccination of around 2,000 school employees who work directly with students countywide will begin on Monday and last for two weeks, alongside vaccinations of grocery store and restaurant workers. Already, about 1,500 school employees—food service workers, custodians, bus drivers, maintenance workers and anyone over the age of 65—were vaccinated at a one-day event in January, but afterwards the county reversed its decision to include school employees in the same group as residents over the age of 65.
Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer, explained that seniors have a dramatically higher risk of death, and Marin’s schools have proven that they are safe. Only 12 instances of in-school transmission have been reported over the course of the pandemic. “The vast majority of cases that occurred among the school community occurred in the community, not in the school,” he said.
Still, the Lagunitas teachers’ union does not want to bring students inside before they are vaccinated. Union president Anita Collison explained that the hesitation goes beyond worry about getting sick. Teaching will be a challenge under the strict protocols, and depending on the schedule, teachers may have to continue delivering some instruction online, a double duty that would spread them thin.
The combination of having to police protocols, deliver dual instruction and worry about contracting Covid-19 is a lot to ask. Lagunitas School is known for its alternative teaching methods, which emphasize collaborative, hands-on projects. “It’s going to have to be a creative endeavor for the teachers that we can still do that for our students and at the same time make sure the safety measures are in place,” Ms. Collison said.
The school has installed high-efficiency particulate air filters in every classroom that help with air flow. Each class will be assigned a bathroom, with new hands-free faucets and toilets, and the district purchased shade structures for outdoor learning.
The school plans to reopen in two phases. Phase one, beginning Monday, entails two hours of outdoor education on two afternoons a week. All academic learning will still take place in the morning over the computer. Phase two, which has no set start date or firm plans because the school is waiting to see how the soft return to campus goes, will likely include four days of instruction.
Ms. Shain said elementary school teachers would continue to see two 12-student cohorts a day, likely one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, though an instructional model task force is also considering alternate days. A lunch hour is unlikely, and the middle school is a tougher puzzle because the teacher-to-student ratio is lower.
The teachers are asking the district for a written agreement that phase two of in-person instruction will not begin until all teachers are fully vaccinated. The union sent a letter to families last week asking them to write to the school board and superintendent John Carrol to support their request, and to call county officials and demand that school employees be vaccinated now, just as Sonoma and Mendocino Counties are doing. Both counties prioritized teachers and offered them their first dose earlier this month.
Since the teachers sent the letter, Dr. Willis told the Light that Marin will begin vaccinating teachers, starting with those who are working in the classroom. Mr. Carrol said he hopes the development makes the conversation about vaccinating before returning moot. Still, he would not guarantee to stay in phase one until teachers are fully vaccinated because he wants flexibility. Vaccine doses must be separated by three or four weeks.
The union and the administration continue to negotiate an agreement; mention of vaccinations or phases of reopening are not included in the memorandum of understanding negotiated in the summer around Covid-19 protocols.
As time has gone on, more and more parents have indicated they want to return to in-person instruction. In the fall, opinions were split; now, the vast majority of families are ready to return. Many parents say distance learning is taking a toll on their children: Kids are suffering from the disconnect, their mental health has declined, and some are barely showing up to class.
After anticipating an enrollment of 237 in August, 22 students have gone elsewhere. Nine of these students never attended, and many were incoming kindergarteners who stayed in their preschools or delayed entry. Students have transferred to other local schools, decided to homeschool or moved out of the area. The departures have a minimal impact on the school’s bottom line.