Schools stop and start in tough return

11/24/2020

West Marin schools continue to balk at reopening classrooms, despite six months of planning under their belts and a green light from public health officials. 

Lagunitas and Shoreline Unified School Districts will not reopen until January, and the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District opened for only its younger grades on Friday. The small return allows the district to be considered open, so that if the state were to move Marin into a more restrictive tier, the school would not be impacted.

Each district faces its own hurdles. Opinions are split, with some teachers and parents pushing for a delay and others pushing for a return. Distance learning is not ideal for most students, a segment of whom are barely attending class or turning in assignments.

The return is further complicated by a recent uptick in cases in Marin. Although the county is not experiencing the velocity of the surge seen across California and the nation, cases are still on the rise. West Marin’s total cases have gone from 65 to 87 this month, a 33 percent increase.

With Thanksgiving break underway, families are expected to travel, resulting in more transmission. Still, public health officials encourage classroom learning if schools can complete a 30-point protection plan specific to each site.

Countywide, 84 of 115 schools have opened to at least 10 percent of students, accounting for about 13 percent of all students. On the coast, only the smallest schools have fully reopened: Lincoln, Laguna and Nicasio. There have been no reported instances of in-school transmission in Marin, and 19 students and two staff members have tested positive for Covid-19, contracted from someone outside the school setting.

Under state guidelines, schools may reopen while Marin remains in the red tier, meaning that transmission is substantial but not widespread based on case and positivity rates. If Marin were to move into the more restrictive purple tier, where 94 percent of the state currently is, reopening would be paused, but schools that are already open could stay open.

The rules pushed the Bolinas-Stinson board to approve a soft reopening on the Stinson Beach campus last week. Kindergartners and first graders went to school for two hours on Friday, without snack or lunchtime. Their parents filled out a health questionnaire prior to dropping off at a designated entrance, wearing face coverings and staying six feet apart. The campus will remain open for three-hour days indoors after Thanksgiving break while the district works to bring back second through eighth grades. 

“It’s a very gentle start, it’s a very safe start,” principal Michelle Stephens said. “This is an opening so we can open on our own terms, in our own way.”

Distance learning in Bolinas has been plagued by poor internet, with the majority of families reporting a slow connection. The school has pursued a number of solutions, like cellular hotspots and on-campus learning hubs, but even at the outdoor learning hub, where 14 students recommended by teachers participate in remote learning, the internet has struggled at times. The school district is looking to contract with an internet expert who can assess the situation better than the haphazard surveys that volunteers have sent out, and to come up with long-term solutions that can support students after the pandemic. 

The district is also seeking a construction company to pour concrete pads to support outdoor learning spaces, shaded by parasols. The district is contracting monthly on-site Covid-19 testing for teachers and anyone in Bolinas who wants one.

At the Shoreline Unified School District, a return this year was tripped up by poor communication with families. In August, the district asked families to choose between a remote-only track, with distance learning until the end of the year, and a transitional track, which would bring students back in phases; 107 students chose remote-only, and 385 students chose the transitional track. Students were assigned to cohorts based on their decision, with fewer than 15 students in each group so classes could keep the same configuration when they returned to campus.

But families have changed their minds, the school district recently discovered. Superintendent Bob Raines sent out an email to families on the transitional track with a proposed schedule of bringing students back in phases beginning on Nov. 30. Families were asked to indicate if they were uncomfortable returning, and 87 students said they were. But because families who hadn’t changed their minds were not asked to respond, it’s unclear how many families are comfortable returning, and how many didn’t see the email.

Because twice as many students are now opting to stay home—200 compared to the 100 the district was planning for—the classroom configurations no longer work. There are too few teachers to instruct every cohort if some cohorts were to be split between returning and distance learning. Mr. Raines said Shoreline is now exploring simulcasting live instruction, realigning cohorts or reassigning teachers. Schools will not open before Jan. 4. 

“I’m very, very disappointed to have to bring that recommendation to the community here,” he told the board last week.

Still, some teachers were satisfied, saying distance learning is working for them. 

“I have seen some amazing engagement in such a small cohort,” fifth-grade teacher Luis Burgos said. “My kids are logging in at 8 a.m., they’re there until 12:30. If they get knocked off, they still come back. They are more than willing to put that effort in to come back into a virtual platform and do some learning. We’re working on a project, and my kids are thoroughly excited to be working collaboratively.”

Internet access is also an issue for Shoreline students living in the most rural areas, but an effort to get a hotpsot into the hands of all students who need one has mitigated the problem. The district launched learning hubs at Tomales Elementary and West Marin Schools with the support of organizations like the Marin County Office of Education, which helped plan, the Marin County Free Library, which is helping to staff, and the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, which is providing snacks.

The West Marin Fund has been particularly supportive of distance learning efforts, awarding tens of thousands of dollars in grants for learning hubs, internet service bills and cellular hotspots, all in the name of supporting low-income, English-learning and special-needs students. One of the grants gave $23,650 to cover the monthly fees for internet access for one year for 77 low-income households.

The Lagunitas School District is practicing patience. Instead of going through the starts and stops of reopening, the steering committee has been content to set a far-off reopening date of Jan. 11 and watch the situation play out. The school benefits from solid internet and therefore high attendance, so distance learning is working better than on the coast. Some parents have said their children’s mental health is suffering from the isolation, but teachers are cautious.