West Marin back in class

01/20/2021

The youngest students of the Shoreline Unified School District are back in classrooms for the first time in 10 months, and that’s just one of many moving parts at West Marin’s largest school district this month. Employees are getting vaccinated, Covid-19 testing efficacy has been thrown into doubt and administrators are still hashing out plans for every scenario: What happens if a teacher falls ill? How will quarantined students receive instruction? When would a class revert to distance learning?

“Everyone is trying to come up with solutions to problems they’ve never encountered,” superintendent Bob Raines said. “It’s the nature of the strangeness of this time.”

The district is bringing students back in phases, beginning last week with the youngest grades at four schools. All grades below seventh will return by next week, and the older students will stay in distance learning until the state moves Marin into a less restrictive tier based on its testing data and hospital capacity. About one-third of students have opted to stick with distance learning until the fall. 

The mood has been celebratory at the elementary schools, and students have followed the new rules with flying colors. They are returning in groups smaller than 15, following a 16-page student handbook that Shoreline developed to lay out its safety measures. 

“Be on the lookout. You’re going to start to see more cars and the busses,” said Beth Nolan, the principal of West Marin School. “It’s thrilling, but it is kind of an adjustment.”

Shoreline’s food service workers, custodians, bus drivers, maintenance workers and employees over the age of 65 were given their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Sunday at the Marin County Civic Center. The remaining employees who work with students in person will receive their first shot in the coming weeks. The district is not tracking who is vaccinated, so it’s unclear how many employees signed up, but over 1,200 school employees countywide have been inoculated.

Shoreline is offering Covid-19 tests from Curative to its employees every two weeks. Curative is reimbursed by health insurance providers or the federal government, with no out-of-pocket cost for the district. The tests are noninvasive, using a self-administered saliva sample, and proctored by anyone who is trained. At Shoreline, the principals and secretaries proctor the tests, which will be offered every two weeks. 

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration alerted patients the tests have a risk of false negative results if they are not performed correctly. Still, Mr. Raines said he is confident the tests will be done right, though he understands they have limitations. Marin’s public health department is also standing by the Curative tests.

Other districts, like the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District, are allowing anyone in the community to sign up when the Curative testing vans visit. Mr. Raines said Shoreline is offering testing only to employees because the district doesn’t have the manpower to proctor more tests. If the county public health department or the Coastal Health Alliance could help out, the district would be willing to expand testing, he said.

Countywide, 100 of 116 schools have brought back at least 10 percent of students. Marin has reported seven instances of in-school transmission. In-school transmission has occurred at the elementary level: three were adult-to-adult, two were adult-to-student, and two were student-to-student.

Shoreline is one of the last districts to reopen in West Marin, second only to the Lagunitas School District, which is waiting until Marin’s case rates fall to reopen. Shoreline delayed its reopening in November after many families changed their minds about returning to classrooms, which scuffled plans for cohorts. Now, every teacher and student is assigned to a cohort, and the expectation is those cohorts will be maintained until the end of the school year. The demographics of who is returning mostly align with the population as a whole, and nobody is returning solely because of poor internet, Ms. Nolan said.

The district and the teachers’ union reached a memorandum of understanding in the summer. That document has guided reopening: If the health and safety agreements in it are met, then teachers are willing to go back. The memorandum was ratified nearly unanimously, but teachers’ feelings about reopening are mixed.

“What I’ve gathered is that our teaching staff runs the entire spectrum of opinion,” said Julie Cassel, the eighth-grade teacher and teachers’ union president. “There are some who were ready to go back shortly after school started, all the way to people who really don’t think it’s safe to go back until everyone is fully vaccinated.” 

Teachers were asked whether they wanted to work with a remote-only or in-person cohort, and those with a valid reason to do so are staying home. The transition is a big lift for teachers, who have to adapt their methods to an environment that is not conducive to collaboration.

The district still hasn’t planned for every scenario. One looming question is how Shoreline will handle a teacher absence. Mr. Raines said the district’s response will depend on the length of the absence, and the least desirable scenario is reverting a class back to distance learning for a period. 

State rules say that a county must be in the red tier, meaning transmission is substantial but not widespread, for at least two weeks before students above sixth grade can return. Technically, Tomales Elementary School was open with a learning hub before these rules took effect, so seventh and eighth graders are returning there. But Tomales High School is on hold. In the meantime, the district is opening another learning hub on campus, and the principal and teachers are figuring out how to manage students working with several teachers who specialize in a subject.

When high school students return, they will still be learning virtually on Zoom, although with strong internet connection and adult supervision. The school purchased a batch of noise-cancelling headphones so students can work in the same room.

Inverness School students arrived by bus on Tuesday morning. Bus rides are not what they used to be: Each child sits two seats apart to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. — David Briggs