Schools

Elementary schools seek waivers to allow fall reopening

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Courtesy of Canterbury Christian School
Students work together during a summer camp hosted at Canterbury Christian School this summer. Canterbury has announced plans to reopen in the fall.

Some local elementary schools are hoping to secure waivers to bring students back to campus this fall by taking advantage of an exemption in California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s school reopening restrictions.

Newsom announced July 17 that schools can’t reopen until their county is off the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list for 14 consecutive days. Santa Clara County was among the counties on the list as of the Town Crier’s Monday press deadline.

The new restrictions scuttled many schools’ plans for the fall, but a footnote in the state’s guidance carved out a lone exception: Elementary schools can apply for waivers to reopen from their local health officer.

Schools throughout Santa Clara County and across the state are now seeking those waivers. That includes some local private schools, such as Los Altos Christian Schools, Pinewood School and Ventana School. The Los Altos School District is also considering applying for a waiver to bring back groups of students who face particular challenges with distance learning.

Frustrations arise

Before Newsom’s announcement, St. Stephen Lutheran School in Mountain View was planning to reopen. With approximately a dozen students total, split into two classrooms, Principal Rebecca Lillo said she believes the school can bring students back while still taking health precautions.

“We’re so small that it feels like we are able to educate the kids and maintain the standards,” Lillo said. “And so that’s why the announcement was especially frustrating for us.”

She reached out to the county the Monday after Newsom’s Friday announcement asking for information about applying for a waiver. A representative from the county responded that the school’s interest had been logged and more details would be provided as they are available. However, Lillo said she hasn’t heard back since.

“We were really hoping we could open in person,” she said. “I’m still trying to be positive and think, maybe the county will get back to me. Maybe I will be granted this waiver. We’ll just keep hoping and praying that happens.”

In a written statement, the Santa Clara County Office of Education said, “The reopening waiver process and timeline for elementary schools in Santa Clara County is in development while additional clarifications are pending from the (California Department of Public Health).”

The statement confirmed that traditional and charter public schools, as well as private schools, have reached out about waivers. However, the county did not answer questions from the Town Crier on the number that have requested waivers, or how many have been granted.

The San Jose Mercury News has previously reported that more than 80 schools in the county have inquired about the process to secure a waiver.

Mitigating impacts

In guidance to schools, the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department states that it “strongly encourages” elementary schools to follow the waiver process. According to the county, this is based in part on evidence that there appears to be a lower risk of child-to-child and child-to-adult COVID-19 transmission in children under age 12. Without in-person school, socioeconomically disadvantaged students are also particularly harmed, the county states.

Recognizing the uneven impact distance learning has, the Los Altos School District is considering requesting a waiver to resume in-person learning for those elementary school students most negatively impacted by online classes. That could include English-language learners, low-income students and those in certain special-education programs.

“We definitely have interest in ensuring especially that our most vulnerable students are helped,” Superintendent Jeff Baier said. “We know that some students have a much harder time with distance learning than others, and we really want to make sure that all our students are able to achieve.”

By starting with smaller groups of students, Baier said the district also can demonstrate that it is able to start bringing students back safely. Eventually, the district hopes to bring back students by grade level, starting with the youngest students. Unlike reopening a smaller private school, fully reopening one of LASD’s schools would involve bringing hundreds of children and adults back to campus.

Beyond size, public schools may face other hurdles to requesting reopening waivers. Public school teachers are generally unionized, unlike their private school counterparts, and according to the state’s guidance, waivers can only be granted if a superintendent requests one “in consultation with labor, parent and community organizations.”

Planning to reopen

Canterbury Christian School in Los Altos announced last week that it will be opening for in-person school Sept. 9. Headmaster Father Steve Macias said in an interview that Canterbury has reached out to the county asking for more information about applying for a waiver, but is planning to move forward with reopening in the fall.

As a school of roughly 60 students split across seven grades, with class sizes capped at 16 students and registration presently showing 12 students as the largest class, Macias said he believes Canterbury can fulfill the parameters currently set for summer camps or day cares.

“We don’t want to be treated differently because of the content of what we’re teaching,” Macias said. “We think that if the goal is safety, and we share that goal, then everything we’re doing falls within the parameters of what the county has been doing.”

The county currently allows certain programs serving children, such as camps and preschools, to open, subject to health requirements. Those restrictions include stable groups of no more than 12 for children ages 6 and over, and no more than 24 for children 5 and under.

However, the county’s directive states that it “does not apply to regular instruction provided by K-12 schools.” Schools aren’t currently allowed to open, per the state’s requirements, unless a waiver is granted.

Canterbury went virtual in the spring before the shelter-in-place order took effect, but Macias said there has been parent demand to return in person come fall. He said families have cited the importance of a classroom environment, as well as the need of some parents to head back to work.

When Lillo, principal at St. Stephen Lutheran School, polled parents on their reopening preferences, she found that opinions varied. Even if the school does get a waiver to reopen, Lillo said she still plans to offer a distance option for parents who don’t yet want to send their kids back. She added that the school wants to follow all government requirements, but believes its size will make it relatively straightforward to adhere to health guidelines.

“Because we’re so small, that’s not hard for us to do at all,” Lillo said. “We were hoping that we could open in person, but I’m not sure if that’s going to happen.”

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