County details how to fully re-open schools

06/24/2020

This August, West Marin schools will open classrooms for five days a week, after public health officials released guidelines that outline how to return to in-person teaching. Each school district is gathering public input and adapting the guidelines to fit its population.

“It was very obvious early on that distance learning—while we have done an amazing job, educators have been over the top working so hard, parents as well—is actually not working,” said Mary Jane Burke, the county’s superintendent of schools. “Knowing that, we knew we had to figure out how to get kids back to school.”

The new guidelines, though less restrictive than districts were preparing for, will make schools look quite different when they reopen. All staff and students, from transitional kindergarten to 12th grade, will be required to wear face coverings unless they have a medical or behavioral reason not to. Before entering campus, students and staff will undergo a daily health screening that asks four questions about symptoms and exposure. Taking temperatures is not required.

For elementary schools, cohorts as large as a standard class size will be maintained throughout each school day and each semester, with an assigned primary cohort teacher. Cohorts should not mix, but staff can visit and instruct more than one cohort, as long as they document those visits.

For middle and high schools, larger cohorts made up of students from more than one classroom may be arranged, as long as accurate attendance data is maintained on a daily basis and schoolwide mixing is avoided.

The cohort model allows schools to avoid closing campus if someone tests positive for Covid-19. If a staff member or student does test positive, their cohort will be sent home and asked to isolate for two weeks. Other scenarios, like if a family member tests positive or if someone exhibits symptoms, do not require closing a cohort until someone within the cohort tests positive.

Marin’s health department is planning to test staff before school starts and at least once every two months after that. The county may also test students with parental permission. 

Cohort sizes will be limited by classroom space. Physical distancing lengths have been reduced from six feet to four feet between students, while six feet of distance is required between teachers and students when possible. Desks should face forward, and the use of outdoor space for instruction should be maximized.

The Marin County Office of Emergency Services is ordering supplies for all public schools, including personal protective equipment, sanitizers, cleaning materials and thermometers. Schedules should be developed to enable students and staff to regularly wash their hands at staggered intervals, and meals should be served in classrooms or outside, with individually plated or bagged meals. Arrival and departure will also be staggered, and schools should use as many different entrances and exits as possible.

The guidelines come with a number of templates for districts to complete, including a school site-specific protection plan that ensures the 30 guidelines are followed. 

How to bus students while maintaining cohorts and physical distance is a key detail that is still being worked out, as are guidelines for extracurricular activities, like sports and music.

Students can opt to do independent study at home, but school leaders haven’t determined if they will need justification to do so. Superintendents are discussing how to collaborate on home study programs so that teachers won’t have double duty between teaching in person and virtually. Teachers who can’t be in the classroom because of health reasons could be assigned to independent study students.

The new guidance allows for districts to move forward with concrete planning, after months of uncertainty.

Back on March 13, schools got word that classroom instruction would be suspended for two weeks, before the shelter-in-place order was announced. Teachers scrambled to send devices and materials home to students, cafeteria workers put together take-home meals, and counselors, paraeducators and secretaries were thrust into new roles to support distance learning. The classroom closure was subsequently extended through April, then through May, then until the end of the school year.

Although staffs put forth an admirable effort, distance learning was a challenge for several reasons. Some students were not engaged: they had poor internet access, distractions at home or new responsibilities that prevented them from learning. Technical difficulties were common, and the hours spent teaching over a computer did not compare to in-class time.

A week after the March school closure, the county launched pop-up childcare centers for children of essential workers. Conceived by Dr. Matt Willis, the public health officer for Marin, and his deputy, Dr. Lisa Santora, the centers pioneered the stable cohort model. This allowed public health officials and school administrators to practice reopening strategies. 

“What does the P.P.E. look like? How do you sanitize? How do you check kids in? Do you take temperatures? What do you do if there’s a Covid-positive student? What do you do if there is a Covid-positive staffer? All of that we worked out,” Ms. Burke said at a town hall on Friday.

Positive cases and transmission occurred at the childcare centers, and two of 13 cohorts were shut down due to a pair of siblings testing positive. Anyone who was in the cohort was told to isolate for two weeks, which was frustrating for students who received a negative test result, Dr. Willis said.

In May, the county education office expanded on the model by opening five pilot programs at schools, with cohorts limited to 12 students, including one at Lagunitas School. 

Superintendents have been closely following the programs and communicating the different strategies and scenarios with their school boards and staffs. Schools were told the most restrictive cohort size would be 12 students, which would likely require a hybrid model, with some days at home. But with cohorts now as large as standard classes, students can return full time.

Each school district will take a slightly different approach, and districts have convened task forces and gathered feedback from families. The vast majority of parents are interested in having children return to campus as long as it is safe to do so, surveys show.

Nicasio School, with around 40 students, will keep its usual classroom configurations, with kindergarten through second grade in one group, third through fifth grade in another, and sixth through eighth grade in a third group, principal Barbara Snekkevik said.

Lagunitas School held its first task force meeting last week. Melissa Flick, a parent on the task force, said she heard a lot of good ideas and felt momentum at the meeting, but wishes the county’s guidelines placed less responsibility on individual districts to make decisions. 

“It puts the onus on us to solve the problem,” she said. 

The Bolinas-Stinson Union School District has convened a large reopening task force, made up of 14 parents, 31 staff members, two board members and three administrators. They broke into subcommittees, and one is looking at how to conduct outdoor class. Teacher Anna Tosick is planning on leading an outdoor summer learning program for those most in need of in-person instruction for three weeks in July. They will also use a classroom, to practice spacing desks for the school year.

The Shoreline Unified School District brought together about 20 staff members on its task force, and conducted three surveys—of parents, students and staff. Superintendent Bob Raines said goals for the fall include assessing and addressing learning gaps and supporting students socially and emotionally. In the student survey, 63 of 87 students said they felt stressed out.

“They miss everybody—their friends, their teachers, their way of learning and being present,” said Norma Oregón-Santarelli, the principal of Tomales and Bodega Bay Elementary Schools.

The first day of school is Aug. 19.