The Los Altos School District has received approval from Santa Clara County to start bringing students back to campus this month.
The district applied for a waiver to resume in-person instruction for students in third grade and below, plus specific groups of elementary schoolers having the hardest time with distance learning. The county approved the waiver application Wednesday (Sept. 9).
Although the plan is to begin reopening campuses Sept. 21, students won’t return all at once. Kids will be brought back in waves, starting with those students particularly in need of support. The broader population of students in third grade and below will then be slowly phased in by grade level, starting with transitional kindergarten and kindergarten.
Superintendent Jeff Baier stressed that the district wants to move cautiously, lest it reopen too quickly and have to close right back down again. Baier said he’s seen examples of districts across the country facing coronavirus outbreaks after large groups of students return all at once.
“We don’t want that. We want to make sure that we’re doing this in a thoughtful way, where we can keep everyone healthy and safe,” Baier said. “We really want this to be a lasting opening.”
The district intends to start reopening Sept. 21, but Baier said that depends on having all of the necessary health and safety measures in place and having sufficient staff willing to return. He said he is confident the district will ultimately have sufficient staff to bring back all the students specified in its waiver application.
The district is able to begin reopening because of a waiver process the state created, which allows elementary schools to secure special permission from their local health department to bring students back.
Schools can’t reopen more broadly until their county is out of the state’s highest risk tier for 14 consecutive days. California is using a four-tier system for rating the risk level of the pandemic in each county.
Santa Clara County moved out of the highest level, dubbed the “purple,” or “widespread,” tier, Tuesday (Sept. 8) and into the “red,” or “substantial,” tier. If the county can stay there for two weeks, schools will be allowed to reopen across all grade levels.
By getting its waiver approved, LASD is now able to bring some students back, regardless of the county’s overall status.
Even as students begin returning to campus, families will still have the option to keep their kids fully remote. The district is offering a 100% virtual option for the duration of the school year. Every six weeks, families have the opportunity to switch their children between the two paths.
A phased approach
The district hopes to bring back students enrolled in special day classes starting Sept. 21. Special day classes are self-contained classrooms for students in special-education programs for more than half the school day. Special day classes will likely initially resume on campus a few days a week, Baier said, with the potential to increase over time.
The district also plans to bring back students who need supervision and support while completing their online classes, though Baier said this may take longer to get up and running. These students include beginning English learners, low-income students and the children of essential workers. Their classes will continue to be online, but they will be able to come to campus and work on their schoolwork while being overseen by a teacher or other staff member. The goal is to offer this five days a week, though Baier said it depends on staffing being available.
The intent is to have transitional kindergartners and kindergartners return Oct. 12, then wait another three weeks before first-graders return, then another three weeks before second-graders come back and finally third-graders.
The grade-level groups will come back in an A/B cohort model, with students coming to campus two days a week and learning from home the remaining three. Group A will come Mondays and Tuesdays, while Group B will return Thursdays and Fridays. All students will be at home on Wednesdays. This hybrid model is how the district had been planning to start the school year, before the state announced in July limits on school reopenings.
With the announcement this week that Santa Clara County is no longer in the highest risk tier for COVID-19 comes the possibility that broader school reopenings could soon be possible. If the county can stay out of the “widespread” tier for 14 consecutive days, schools will no longer need waivers to reopen and all grade levels will be eligible to return.
Should that happen, Baier said the district would still likely move forward with a phased approach, bringing students back by grade level starting with the youngest learners. However, it would create the opportunity to eventually bring back older students.
“We don’t want to be caught in that situation where the doors swing open wide and we end up being one of those places that has to close down because we did it too fast,” Baier said.
At Monday’s (Sept. 14) LASD Board of Trustees meeting, Baier plans to ask the trustees for input on how to move forward if the county is able to stay out of the “widespread” tier. It may be possible, he said, to bring grade levels back in pairs rather than individually, and wait two weeks between groups rather than three.
“Our goal is to have kids back on campus and (be) teaching them in person,” Baier said. “But we have to be sure we’re doing this in a way that is safe for everybody involved.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the date of the waiver approval was incorrect. The county approved the waiver Sept. 9.