Tuesday was anything but a normal school day at Egan Junior High School. Attendance as of 9 a.m. was a grand total of three students, and the gym -- normally bustling with physical activity -- had been converted into a COVID-19 testing site.
But the surreal school day still marks a major milestone in returning to normalcy during a global pandemic. The Los Altos School District partially reopened its schools for in-person instruction this week, making it among the first in the county to open campuses since the pandemic began in March.
The district received a waiver from county health officials on Sept. 9 permitting it to reopen schools early, making it a rare exception. Most county school districts have not applied for a waiver.
The opening plan is staggered, with a slim number of kids returning to school this week, said Superintendent Jeff Baier. Only special education students who spend more than half their day in a specialized setting were allowed to return -- meaning about 45 students are back for in-person instruction across five of the district's schools.
Assuming all goes according to plan, kindergarten and first grade students will be permitted to return to school starting Oct. 12, Baier said, bringing up daily attendance to between 40 and 50 students at each school campus. Classroom activities take place either outdoors or inside well-ventilated, socially distanced classrooms, and must follow rigid guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
When it comes to reopening, Baier said the community feedback from parents and staff has been varied, some urging the district to reopen quicker or slow down, with many in between.
"Everyone is viewing this through their own personal experience and their own personal filter, and we have different reactions," he said. "We have people on both ends of the spectrum."
In order to reopen, district officials had to account for screening all students, employees and visitors for symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and a daily regimen for cleaning and disinfecting "high touch" areas. The district's strategy even includes a developed plan for supporting students and staff in the event that a staff member dies of COVID-19.
Bullis Charter School, which shares the Egan campus, also announced that it will reopen for in-person instruction for kindergarten and first grade classes on Wednesday, Sept. 30. The expectation is that one-third of the families in those grades are opting to return to campus this week, while others are sticking to remote learning, said Alan Simpson, a spokesman for the charter school.
A push for more tests
A major part of safely reopening schools is frequent and easy-to-access COVID-19 testing for school staff at a time when tests are still hard to get.
El Camino Health is largely taking up the torch, announcing this week that it will provide pop-up testing sites exclusively for teachers and school staff in local school districts. The partnership includes the Los Altos School District, the Mountain View Whisman School District and the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District.
The Tuesday testing site in Egan's gym was the third of many that will be hosted by the hospital, said Cheryl Reinking, El Camino's chief nursing officer. The hospital had already tested 400 teachers and school staff prior to Tuesday, including those working at schools that have yet to open.
The tests are paid for by the El Camino Healthcare District, which approved $2.5 million in funding for COVID-19 tests. Reinking said one of the district's priorities was to provide frequent tests for school staff as districts seek to reopen this fall.
"If we want to bring our kids back to school, we know we need to keep the teachers healthy and safe," she said.
Teachers who are working on campus are strongly encouraged to get tested multiple times, even if they do not show any symptoms. County public health guidelines suggest a test every 14 days is a good way to avoid asymptomatic transmission of the virus, Reinking said, based on reports that show patients can contract the virus and not show symptoms for between two and 14 days.
Baier said the on-site testing wasn't a requirement to reopen school earlier than normal, but it was included in the district's application to the county.