The Los Altos School District is seeking to reopen its schools for in-person instruction early, filing for a waiver that would allow young children and disadvantaged students to return to campus.
Los Altos is one of only three public school districts in Santa Clara County to request permission for an early reopening, along with three charter schools and 54 private schools. Los Altos district officials say the goal is to bring back students who are the least likely to thrive in a distance learning environment.
In July, California announced mandatory closures of all middle and high schools in counties on the state's watchlist, in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases across the state, including Santa Clara County. The watchlist was replaced by a new tier system in an Aug. 28 announcement.
Elementary schools can reopen this fall, but only after receiving approval through a waiver signed off by the local public health officer. Dozens of schools were quick to jump on the opportunity, particularly private schools, but the vast majority of the 31 school districts across Santa Clara County have been less eager to apply.
Superintendent Jeff Baier told school board members in a meeting last week that the district submitted a waiver on Aug. 17 and staff is working to redraft it to meet the county's public health requirements. He said the goal is to start by providing in-person instruction for special education and other disadvantaged students, later ramping up to transitional kindergarten up to third grade.
"Those are the grade levels that do have the greatest challenge in the distance learning format, and they make sense to be the ones to focus on," Baier said.
Moreland School District in San Jose is the only public school district to have received a waiver in Santa Clara County. Baier said the he is in communication with Moreland to better understand the county's public health expectations. Schools must account for a laundry list of mandatory safety protocols, including health screenings, frequent cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, face mask requirements and physical distancing.
School board president Bryan Johnson said many students are having difficulty learning remotely, particularly younger students and those with disabilities, and that valuable academic progress is currently being lost. While he couldn't speak for why other school districts aren't pursuing a waiver, he said Los Altos is capable of safely bringing back high priority students.
"We always had a plan to bring back some of our kids who we knew need the most in-person help and are least likely to succeed in a distance environment, which includes a lot of our special ed students," Johnson said. "In many cases it's extremely difficult to learn online, and it's extremely difficult for the parents."
The proposal by the Los Altos School District takes a phased approach, inviting back students enrolled in special education classes and waiting two or three weeks to see how well the reopening plan works. If all goes well, the district would expand to transitional kindergarten and slowly ramp up to third grade. Though waivers are an iterative process, Johnson said the hope is to bring back students all the way through sixth grade.
To keep cohorts small and reduce the number of kids at school at any one time, Los Altos will be using a hybrid learning model in which students would only physically attend school for part of the week, either Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays. All families will have the option to opt out of in-person instruction and stick with distance learning.
Teachers and staff have been part of the reopening plan since the summer, Jonhson said, and described their buy-in as an essential part of the waiver process.
"If they're not comfortable with this plan, it's not going to be successful," he said.
Bullis Charter School, a public charter located in Los Altos, has also applied for a waiver to reopen. While the schools is on school district property, its operations are entirely separate from those of the school district. Representatives from Bullis did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its reopening plan.
Private schools in Mountain View and Los Altos also seeking a waiver include Khan Lab School, Waldorf School of the Peninsula and Pinewood School.
Baier told parents in an email Aug. 27 that he is not expecting the waiver to be approved for at least a few weeks, and that families with children receiving special education services will be contacted once in-person learning is available.