All nine of the Los Altos School District's campuses sprang to life this week, with a small number of kindergarten and first grade students arriving for in-person classes following a seven-month lockdown.
The soft reopening Monday marks the first in a series of steps to bring back all students for in-person instruction, and will test drive carefully laid plans to avoid an outbreak and keep students and staff healthy. Desks are 6 feet apart, outdoor lunch tables are isolated between classrooms and all students are subject to regimented hygiene routines throughout the day.
Los Altos, like many school districts across the state, is taking a cautious approach and starting small. Only transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade students are allowed back on campus this week, and only on an opt-in basis. The majority of the families who chose not to send their kids to campus will continue virtual learning from home.
The limitations meant that between 175 and 185 students were back on campus Monday, or about 15 to 20 students per school, Superintendent Jeff Baier told trustees at the Oct. 12 school meeting. This is in addition to a handful of special education students who have been back for in-person instruction since late September, but overall is only a fraction of the typical enrollment for kindergarten and first grade.
Baier said Monday was an important test for the school district to see how well parents, students and school staff practice the district's safety protocols, which includes staggered pick-up and drop-off times and designated places to walk around campus to avoid overcrowding. Many of the hallways are split for two-way traffic, he said, and the kids are doing a good job staying in their lane.
Another big safety precaution is daily screenings for symptoms of COVID-19, which all students and staff must conduct prior to arrival on campus. Anyone who reports symptoms is isolated and send home immediately, and students who are forced to isolate will revert back to distance learning.
"The protocols were in order and the expectations very clear, and I just wanted to congratulate each of our schools for that," Baier said. "Especially our teachers -- I know that it's been a great deal of work preparing for that."
While Monday appeared to be a successful rollout of in-person instruction during a global pandemic, Baier said it's going to be difficult to do the same for older students. Not only does it rapidly scale up the number of people on campus at any one time, but sixth grade through eighth grade classes are far more complex and difficult to manage than an elementary school classes with one home teacher. Students from different cohorts intermingle throughout the day and visit multiple classrooms based on subject, bumping up the risk of exposure.
"The students see up to seven different teachers in a day, and our sixth grade really emulates certain portions of the junior high school schedule even on an elementary school campus," Baier said.
In order to better handle the influx of students back on campus, Baier suggested that the school district push its entire reopening schedule back by at least a week. That means second and third grade students can resume in-person instruction on Nov. 9, while fourth and fifth grade will return on Dec. 7. Baier said the extra time after Thanksgiving will ensure that safety routines are ingrained for both students and staff after the weeklong break.
The revised schedule pushes the return date for sixth grade to Jan. 11 and all junior high school students on Jan. 20 -- more than a month later than was previously planned.
Board president Bryan Johnson said he acknowledged that it was a significant delay, but that it isn't without reason. Los Altos had an aggressive timeline that outpaced neighboring school districts, and it's clear that the challenges with middle school-aged students and the persistent number of newly reported COVID-19 cases is forcing the school district to tap the brakes.
"It's a recognition in hearing from the county Department of Public Health that the restrictions are not softening or going away in the short term, maybe not in the medium term," Johnson said. "It became clear to me that we've got to be a little less ambitious."