Face to Face: The Follow Up
School Safety During Covid-19
by Jeanette Prather
Demonstrating an admirable resilience in the face of a pandemic, students have adapted and adjusted to the times, and teachers have shown that their valiant efforts and unwavering passion can and will educate children across many platforms and over a variety of wavelengths.
As local schools make a slow crawl aAs local schools make a slow crawl away from what was undoubtedly the strangest school year in modern history, they’re looking onward while trying to keep it together, safe, and “normal” for the kids.
“Based on our experience with distance learning in the spring, there was little question in the minds of our staff as well as myself that if the opportunity to hold in-person learning was available, we would certainly take it,” said Meg Imel, the principal at Twin Lakes Christian School.
Twin Lakes Christian School, like many other local private and preschools, were given the green light to reopen late last summer, following stringent county-wide guidelines. Not too long after, public schools followed suit, allowing no more than 12 students per school into cohorts; those students who expressed a deep need for in-person education.
“We have small cohorts at all 10 of our schools,” said Kris Munro, superintendent of the Santa Cruz City School District.
All schools, private and public, have made valiant efforts in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are now adding to our list; the management of stricter and more stringent safety procedures and protocols, the working with state and local government agencies, the daily viewing & analyzing of COVID-19 data, and the constant communication of this information with our families,” said Natural Bridges Children’s Center administration staff, Jonnie Cardinale, Allie Maffei, and Karyn Schmidt. “All of this while maintaining children’s positive and inspired early learning experiences.”
“We have protocols that are quite standard at this stage, but we definitely air on the side of greater caution,” said Tara Redwood director, Pam Cayton, referencing a recently updated four-page document that specifies similar drop-off, pick-up, daily, and safety protocols as most other private and public schools. “Perhaps the most challenging for families is our requirement since the holidays for families and staff to quarantine for 14 days if they have traveled or gathered with people outside their usual pod.”
Rosy Weiser, Orchard School’s kindergarten teacher and assistant principal said small, controlled cohorts are going well with a few surprising positives. “We’re still managing to give the kids a lot of fun opportunities and experiences with outdoor activities like organic farming and our animal program,” she said. “The kids are really responding well to being with the same set of teachers, too. There are a lot of unexpected benefits to hosting small cohorts of no more than 13 students per two or three teachers, as well as grouping them into kindergarten, first through third, and fourth through sixth grades.”
“The small cohorts are working well,” added Cayton. “We have all noticed how the children are like a family in their cohorts. They have bonded very quickly and are all so kind, sweet, and supportive. I think these small groups, especially during these times of significant restrictions, the children seem to create an instant rapport.”
“[The] positive [is] having a written pledge the families and staff have signed to all be on the same safety page,” said Cardinale, of Natural Bridges Children’s Center. “The children have become very close and have grown socially at a greater rate by providing individualized attention to the same small group of children five days a week all day.”
At Orchard, “We’ve filtered out the teachers who had anxiety about in-person education, as well as those who felt it wasn’t safe or didn’t like the restrictions,” said Weiser. “The teachers who are here are really committed to what we’re doing and we’re all staying up with reviewing protocols and procedures as the county regulations adapt and change.”
The Santa Cruz Waldorf school is using outdoor space, wearing masks, and rotational groups to prevent large number gatherings. “We’re clearing classrooms so that we can meet the distancing requirements, which are changing almost daily, and to make it easy to clean,” said 8th grade teacher Jodi Casey. “We’re retrofitting all of the bathrooms, making many of the fixtures as touchless as we can, and also installing hand washing stations throughout the campus.”
According to Imel, the principal, Twin Lakes Christian School is also using desk shields, managing 6-feet distance, additional adult help with stable groups who didn’t mix, different recess schedules, non-shared outside space, staggered drop-off and pick-up times, a questionnaire form with a temperature check, electric static disinfectant sprayers, mandatory mask-wearing at all times, spaced out bathroom stalls, closed water fountains, and one-way walking patterns throughout our halls.
“Tara Redwood School created outdoor classrooms for all our classes. Our classes spend an average of 75% of the time in their outdoor classrooms, studying, as well as exploring and playing on the 108 acres of forest,” said Cayton. “It has always been our goal to expand on the property [and] especially during these very challenging times, it seems even more essential. For this reason, we made the decision in August to leave our campus in Soquel Village that had temporarily accommodated the Kindergarten/Elementary classes for eight years and move back to the 108 acres on the Land of Medicine Buddha property.”
“Our two older cohorts are indoors when they can’t be outside; one located in an old, converted barns and the other in a gym where kids can be inside and distanced,” said Weiser. “We’ve got separate bathrooms, staggered recesses, students bringing their own materials from home, no field trips, and staggered drop-off and pick-up times, to name a few protocols.”
Countywide, the public education system hopes to begin more consistent cohort availability under the guise of Governor Newsom’s proposed school reopening plan, “Safe Schools for All.” “This plan would require an agreement with teacher and classified unions,” wrote all 11 COE superintendents in a letter to families on January 8, 2021. “The Governor has established an accelerated timeline for interested elementary schools to have all these components in place by February 1,” which at the time this article was written, has yet to be determined.
“Schools that are offering instruction to small groups or which are fully reopened (private schools) over the past few months have had very few examples of in-school transmission,” wrote the superintendents in the same letter. “For these reasons, Santa Cruz County Superintendents and Santa Cruz County Public Health have concluded that weekly testing of students is not feasible nor is it necessary.”
As continued roll-out of information and vaccination is released, public and private schools work diligently to stay updated, informed, and safe regarding in-person education. “NBCC is optimistic about the upcoming vaccine distribution and is hopeful that our ECE community will be at the top of the list when receiving these crucial vaccines,” said the same staff at Natural Bridges Children’s Center. “Once this distribution takes place, we are confident that we will return to the healthy and huggable campus we once were.”
“In terms of changes, we’re going to always be looking to make incremental steps to move back to what was a pre-COVID situation,” said Imel. “That will be guided by the county through its tiers and phases.”
“We are motivated by the sense of urgency for children to have a safe and peaceful environment to explore, learn and grow at school,” said Cayton. “[Tara Redwood] offers a healthy, safe environment with a unique curriculum for awakening empathy, kindness, and social responsibility in the minds and hearts of our children. This is perhaps what our children, families, and the world needs now more than ever before…or at least more than we have for a very long time.”
See the first part of the series on our website, growingupsc.com/face-to-face-school/