More than 80 local schools have contacted the Santa Clara County Office of Emergency Operations about filing a waiver to reopen their elementary campuses in person in the fall, including several on the Midpeninsula.
The waiver option — mentioned briefly in a press release sent by Gov. Gavin Newsom's office following his July 17 announcement that schools in counties being monitored by the state cannot not physically reopen, throwing many schools' plans into disarray — allows schools to seek an exception from their local county health officer.
Several local private elementary schools moved quickly to apply for a waiver, saying they felt confident that with more resources, smaller student populations and already detailed plans for how to safely reopen that they can and should bring their youngest students back for face-to-face instruction. They also have spent ample time — and money — to prepare their campuses for students' safe return to school.
According to a statement posted to the Office of Emergency Operations website, the Public Health Department "strongly encourages elementary schools to follow this process so that they can safely resume in-person instruction this fall," based on the growing evidence that COVID-19 risks appear lower for younger children and that in-person instruction is academically and socially critical for younger students.
Local schools that have confirmed they are seeking a waiver include Bowman School, Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, Emerson School and Silicon Valley International School in Palo Alto, Pinewood School in Los Altos and the German International School of Silicon Valley in Mountain View.
"Our size allows flexibility in keeping staff and students safe using the guidelines provided by local and state authorities," Bowman Head of School MaryBeth Ricks said. "It's important to stress that we're going to be extremely responsible … but we're going to try every avenue to get especially the younger ones in person and not give up hope that we can be granted the waiver."
Before Newsom's announcement, Bowman had already brought some students back to school for a summer session with numerous precautions. Students were in stable cohorts of 12; students and staff had their temperatures and symptoms checked daily; all students older than first grade were required to wear masks all day; and all staff gathering areas were closed. A new volunteer task force, made up of Bowman parents who work in the medical field, advised Ricks on best practices for reopening.
"Everybody's been positive about" reopening schools in person, Ricks said of the parent-advisers, "based on our very, very strict plans."
Bowman is now developing three different contingency plans for the first day of school on Sept. 1: full distance learning, a hybrid model if the waiver is approved and a third plan if the waiver is approved but not for all elementary grade levels.
In the spring, Bowman teachers were available in online classrooms to work with students from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on school days. Virtual learning proved especially difficult for younger students, who are less tech-savvy and thus required more parent supervision, Ricks said.
Other private schools are applying for the waiver to keep their options open — especially as concrete details about how the waiver will work remain scarce — but are not sure that they would use it if approved.
"We do not know if we want to open at all," said Angie Bergeson, Silicon Valley International School's head of school. "We want to stay as safe as possible. We wouldn't want to go against county health guidelines even if we could with a waiver."
But the majority of the private bilingual school's families want face-to-face instruction, Bergeson said. In June, only 10% of families said they prefer online learning. Parents have been urging the school to apply for a waiver, Bergeson said.
"Independent schools have parent communities that are really pressuring schools to reopen. It's putting independent schools in a particular bind knowing that they can apply for a waiver," Bergeson said.
Parent Raphael Michel, co-chair of Silicon Valley International School's board of directors, hopes his children, a rising third-grader and rising sixth-grader, will be able to safely attend school in person in the fall — more for their emotional development than academic, he said.
"You can get a good knowledge transfer in some conversation moderated by a well-trained educator on a video session but … all of that learning through playing they get when they're in the same classroom, when they have those in-person interactions, when they're on the playground — that social emotional development is at risk of being diminished," Michel said.
(The county Public Health Department noted in its online statement about the reopening waiver that "the health-related risks for elementary age children who are not provided in-person instruction are significant, including lower rates of immunizations, higher rates of undetected child abuse and neglect, and risk to social/emotional wellbeing.")
Michel said parents would "scratch their heads" if Silicon Valley International School obtained a waiver and decided not to use it, but they are placing their trust in the school's leadership to make the safest decision for students.
Silicon Valley International also created an advisory council, including parents and outside experts, to whom Bergeson said she'll turn if the school obtains a reopening waiver.
For now, the school has decided to offer only online learning for the first six weeks of school, regardless if its waiver is granted or if Santa Clara County gets off the state watchlist. The school pushed the start of school later by two weeks to allow time for students to come to campus to pick up supplies, safely meet their teachers and prepare for distance learning.
"We need to now control the situation and be able to say we know what we're doing. One of the hardest things about this for schools is this not knowing," Bergeson said. "Actually making the decision to do distance learning is the most effective and efficient for us to start school, but of course it's really crushing for independent schools to say that to their communities … They're paying tuition and they're wondering when their kindergartner starts distance learning, what is that going to look like?"
Kathrin Röschel, principal of the German International School of Silicon Valley in Mountain View, said she plans to apply for the waiver but "only will use it when safety measures allow."
"We miss our students. We strongly believe in in-person instruction and the social component in learning, but we were also extremely successful with our distance-learning program in spring and will not put the health of our students, teachers and community in jeopardy," she wrote in an email.
The waivers, if granted, could further exacerbate inequities between public and private schools during the pandemic. Public schools must make the request "in consultation" with their labor unions, parents and community-based organizations, according to Newsom's office, while private schools can be more nimble.
Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin said at a school board meeting this week that the district does not plan to apply for a waiver to reopen its elementary schools, despite the urging of several parent speakers.
"If waivers were the preferred path to reopen schools, we wouldn't have needed waivers. They would have just said, 'It's fine to go open your elementary schools.' They didn't," Austin said. "The idea of going around that process, through all the reasons that led to us being closed ... did not make sense for our district."
Private school leaders said they have heard little about how the waiver process will work or how long it will take. Some have been or are waiting to be assigned a liaison from the county's Office of Emergency Operations.
The office, meanwhile, has received little guidance from the state on how to evaluate waivers — only the publicly available Cal OSHA and California Department of Public Health guidelines for reopening schools, according to a county public information officer. Newsom's office said local health officials reviewing applications must "consider local data and consult with the California Department of Public Health."
"The county is still in the planning stages about how next to proceed about reviewing applications," the spokesperson said.
The Public Health Department's assessment of waivers will include review of local community epidemiological data and other public health interventions, as well as consultation with the state Department of Public Health, according to the county Emergency Operations Center.
At Silicon Valley International School, which offers Mandarin Chinese-English and French-English programs, teachers are trying to think creatively about how to offer effective language instruction in this new era. Ideas have included virtual dinners with teachers in Mandarin or French and asking older students to play online games with younger students in the language they're studying. Even in person, masks will make it difficult to teach language, Bergeson said.
The reopening dilemma feels like "you're choosing between being punched in the stomach and punched in the face," Bergeson said. "The situation is really quite difficult for schools to make everybody happy."
On Monday, Aug. 3, the California Department of Public Health released its process for the reopening waivers, including that the waiver is applicable for transitional kindergarten through sixth grades and a recommendation that schools in counties with 14-day case rates more than two times the threshold to be on the county monitoring List (more than 200 cases/100,000 population) should not be considered for a waiver.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.