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Megan v. Winslow/Town Crier file photo Children meet a goat at Hidden Villa, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the 1920s, Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills has been a hub for wildlife education and exposure to the natural world, inviting schools, families and other members of the public to explore its farm, garden and trails.

When the pandemic hit, the Hidden Villa staff had to find ways to connect visitors with nature while keeping them safe.

In June, Hidden Villa switched to a reservations-based system, with the hope that a phased approach would bring a return to normalcy. While other parks may face the complications of visitor limitations, the online reservation system employed by Hidden Villa aims to ensure social distancing to keep staff and visitors safe, along with the capability of doing contact tracing, if necessary.

Safety remains priority No. 1

These days, Hidden Villa doesn’t sound the same, either.

“The first thing folks notice is how quiet it is on the ranch,” said Marc Sidel, Hidden Villa’s deputy director of development. “The typical ‘music’ of Hidden Villa is still full of chirping birds, bleating sheep, croaking frogs and buzzing bees; what’s missing right now are the gleeful sounds of students on school field trips.”

Visits are limited to two hours, and some parts of the park are closed and certain trails are now one-way.

“Our main challenge has been keeping as much of Hidden Villa accessible while also ensuring that safety remains the top priority,” Sidel said.

At first, Hidden Villa only allowed volunteers and season-pass holders to visit, he added. After state and county guidelines were updated, the preserve opened to the general public and “continued to increase visitation by extending hours and increasing the maximum number of people allowed without compromising safety,” Sidel said. “We also reopened with access limited to our trails but have since opened up most of the animal areas and the education

garden.”

On top of visits, Hidden Villa has provided an educational space for local elementary students to visit and experience nature together. With most schools only offering distance learning, preserve staff scrambled to find a way to provide a virtual experience.

“We realized that a huge audience that we were going to be unable to serve in person this year was our school community,” said Nicky Crummett, Hidden Villa’s senior director of programs. “Ordinarily, our teacher team would see tens of thousands of schoolchildren here onsite for field trips.”

Live from Hidden Villa

As an alternative to in-person field trips, the staff last fall launched Hidden Villa Live, 45-minute Zoom sessions for students and other local residents. The interactive events give participants a virtual look at the farm. Aimed at students in grades K-5, the sessions include “The Three R’s, Garden Style: Reuse, Renew, and Recycle” and “We’re All Connected: The Great Web of Life.”

“We wanted to be able to continue to provide a service to that audience and also support the teachers, because we know that this has been an incredibly challenging time for folks,” Crummett said. “We thought we could bring a virtual experience, a field trip to Hidden Villa in which you can hear the sheep meeting, you can watch the cow get milk from his mother, see the worms that work in the garden.”

Crummett described the live sessions as “a joyous interlude to a typical day.”

In addition, the live sessions meet each grade level’s Next Generation Science Standards.

“We have the most amazing classroom in which there’s 1,500 acres of Santa Cruz Mountain wilderness, intersecting with 150 acres of operational or organic farming,” Crummett said. “We really want to highlight everything that exists within that, all the way from the natural environmental systems to the systems that support actually getting food onto our table.”

What’s next

According to Crummett, Hidden Villa hopes to bring in families in March for “YES – Your EdVenture Space” tours that focus on the wilderness component of the farm for two-hour sessions in groups of up to 10, when the county is hopefully in the less-threatening orange or yellow tier of the county’s

COVID framework.

At the same time, staff plan to pilot a similar cohort program with students, bringing together stable groups once a week for four weeks to experience the farm and all it has to offer.

To register for a visit or program and for more information on Hidden Villa, visit hiddenvilla.org