Los Altos School District resumes in-person instruction for young students

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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
A group of first-graders head into class at Oak Avenue School this morning (Oct. 12).

This morning (Oct. 12), Oak Avenue School Principal Kimberly Attell stood at the front of the campus, greeting parents and students – from a distance – as they arrived.

“It really does feel like, even though it’s the eighth week of school, it’s the first day of school,” Attell said.

Despite the pandemic precautions, many traditional parts of the first day were on display today. Attell said she was excited to see kids walk onto campus, and watched as parents took photos of their students at the front of the school, some growing a bit teary-eyed as they hugged goodbye.

Today wasn’t technically the first day of school, but in many ways, it felt like it was, as the youngest students in the Los Altos School District returned to campus after more than half a year away. LASD students in transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade have the opportunity to resume in-person learning this week.

The kids are coming back in a hybrid model, where they are at school twice a week and working from home the remaining three days. Students are split into two groups, with one coming to campus on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other on Thursdays and Fridays.

Local schools were allowed to broadly reopen starting Sept. 23, after Santa Clara County stayed out of the state’s highest COVID-19 risk tier for two consecutive weeks. However, many districts opted to stay largely remote, including the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District and Cupertino Union School District. The Los Altos School District, on the other hand, chose to move forward with reopening.

Small groups of special-education students already returned late last month, but today marked the first time broader grade levels were on campus. The district plans to bring back students in groups by grade, with all kids getting the chance to return by the end of November. Families also have the option to choose an entirely virtual option.

New routines

As kids come back to class, teachers are working to set routines and procedures, particularly around health and safety precautions. That includes how to line up while maintaining physical distance, how to step outside to take off their masks and get a drink of water, as well as reminders to consistently wash and sanitize their hands.

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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
A student at Oak Avenue School gets a pump of hand sanitizer from a gallon jug before entering the classroom this morning (Oct. 12).

Some of the routines, such as sitting on the carpet for a lesson or going out to recess as a class, already existed in a typical year, but now have additional precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s providing more structure or boundaries around a lot of existing, traditional kinds of routines,” Attell said.

Being in person can also help the youngest learners, who Attell said have shorter attention spans and for whom personal connection is important.

“My hope is that they can be even more engaged and connected, and build that relationship with their teacher and their classmates, where at home it’s a little harder,” she said.

Kira McNally said she is happy that her son, who is in transitional kindergarten at Almond School, will get the chance to be in the classroom starting this week. He is in the group of kids who will be attending in person on Thursdays and Fridays. Her older child, a second-grader at Santa Rita, is slated to start the first week of November.

“I’m most excited that they get to have some sense of normalcy back in their lives,” McNally said. “They’ve adapted really well (to distance learning), but you do feel that loss for them.”

Learning online has been “very challenging,” McNally said, particularly for her son in transitional kindergarten. Although she stressed that teachers are doing their best, engaging a child that young online is “a little bit impossible.” She’s had to help him work the computer, especially muting and unmuting himself.

“It would be really hard to keep distance learning up for my TK’er for the entire year,” McNally said. “I’m really excited that he gets to go back, even if it’s just a couple days a week. I think it’ll be really good for him to be in that classroom environment with peers and his teacher.”

Given the number of safety precautions the district is taking, she said she feels very comfortable sending her kids back in person.

Remaining remote

For those families who aren’t yet ready to return, the district is offering a fully remote option. Nearly 500 kids are enrolled in that path, according to Associate Superintendent Sandra McGonagle.

“I’m really happy that we were able to provide a choice for families, that if they’re not ready to come back, we have a program for them,” McGonagle said.

Even for those students returning in person, they will still be working from home three days a week. On those days, kids will largely complete lessons independently, but will receive a few hours of live instruction, McGonagle said.

The exact schedule varies by grade level, but Attell said Oak’s kindergarten teachers will be streaming the morning meeting, so kids learning online can stay connected. Kindergarten aides will then meet with students online several times throughout the day for things like story time and small-group work. At the end of the day, teachers will check back in with the students learning remotely, once those who are in person have gone home.

As for the teachers themselves, Attell said they have a range of feelings about teaching students face-to-face again. Perspectives range from those who can’t wait to be back to others who are really nervous. McGonagle similarly said the mood varies, but there’s “every indication” the district will have the staffing necessary to keep bringing kids back.

“They’re excited to come back, but everybody is a little nervous,” McGonagle said. “It’s not school as usual.”

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