At a glance, it looked like a normal first day of school: Kids climbed excitedly on a jungle gym, a teacher led story time, a group of fourth-graders went over classroom expectations for the year.
It was far from normal. All the students and staff had been privately tested for the coronavirus before being allowed to return to campus. Classes were being held under tents in parking lots and in storage spaces converted into outdoor or open-air classrooms. One teacher led her class remotely from a screen as she quarantined at home after traveling for a family emergency. Kindergarteners, on their first-ever day of in-person school, were learning about "air hugs" and using "airplane arms" to stay 6 feet apart.
Synapse School, a small private school in Menlo Park, is one of 21 San Mateo County schools that have been granted waivers to reopen in person for elementary grades. Wednesday was its first day of the new school year (the restart was delayed by two days because of poor air quality). Only schools with waivers are allowed to reopen until San Mateo County's COVID-19 metrics are low enough to gain the state's permission for all schools to reconvene.
Synapse offers a unique look into how one local private school — one with ample resources and a reputation for being scrappy and innovative — has approached reopening, from partnering with Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital to provide weekly COVID-19 testing to reconfiguring the campus to educate students outdoors.
"Schools can do this — maybe not this robustly. We're small. We have some resources," Head of School Jim Eagen acknowledged. "If you're a smaller school and you can think creatively, I do think you can get to a spot where you can open safely."
Synapse, which was born as a lab school in 2009, offers project-based instruction with a focus on social-emotional learning and neuroscience research (hence the name). Students don't receive letter grades and are instead assessed on concepts like risk, communication and iteration. Once a year, the entire school is turned into a "living museum" displaying students' interactive projects based on an annual theme. Tuition ranges from $32,000 for kindergarten to $38,000 for middle school, plus fees.
Elementary students returned in person this week in a hybrid model. Stable cohorts of eight to 12 kindergarten through fourth-graders are at the Edison Way campus in the morning, then head home for distance learning in the afternoon. Cohorts of the same size of fifth- and sixth-graders who learn remotely in the morning attend in person in the afternoon, after the campus gets a deep clean during lunchtime. About 80% to 85% of students in these grades have returned; the rest have opted for full distance learning, according to the school.
All students and staff are being tested weekly on campus through what Eagen said is a cutting-edge research partnership. Synapse, which had an existing partnership with Stanford through the school's Brainwave Learning Center, has teamed up with the university and children's hospital for a study on COVID-19 diagnostics and the safe reopening of schools. In exchange for a team of researchers and doctors who provide the testing under a tent in a school parking lot every Thursday, Synapse raised money and dipped into the school's rainy day fund — and "it's raining really hard right now," Eagen said — to create a fund that the hospital can use "as they see fit to help reopen schools."
The testing is led by Yvonne Maldonado, a Stanford pediatric infectious disease professor and the infection control medical director at Packard, and Jason Wang, associate pediatrics professor at the children's hospital. Both have been consulting with the school on its reopening plans since June, as have medical experts from the University of California at San Francisco.
Students and staff who are tested receive a lower nasal swab while those who opt into the study (including this newspaper's reporter and photographer, who were tested before being allowed to visit Synapse) undergo three different kinds of COVID-19 testing: a nasopharyngeal swab (deep in the nose), lower nasal swab and saliva sample. All samples are analyzed at the Stanford University Clinical Virology Laboratory. The school promises a 48-hour turnaround for student and staff results.
There have been no positive tests yet, Eagen said, but the school has acknowledged that "even with the best control strategies in place, there may be cases in our community."
Synapse asks students and families to adhere to a set of guidelines that assess the risk levels of various off-campus activities, such as socializing, going for a hike or dining at restaurants.
Testing is just one layer of Synapse's reopening strategy, which also includes the frequent cleaning of spaces, physical distancing, handwashing, upgrading HVAC units and requiring all students and staff to wear masks while on campus. Athletics and field trips have been put on hold and events like back to school night and all-school assemblies will take place online.
The 2-acre campus itself has been transformed to serve students mostly outside based on research that shows the coronavirus doesn't transmit as easily outdoors, Eagen said. To create outdoor classrooms, the school purchased Wi-Fi hotspots, put down turf on parking lots, purchased large tents and built new desks and whiteboards in a campus makerspace. A multipurpose room has been turned into two first-grade classrooms, with new carpet that has yellow designs that double as social distancing markers. The few classes that are meeting indoors are in spaces with large air flow.
"We took down walls," Eagen said. "That's our school's approach. We're a very innovative lab school, young and scrappy. Our parents expect that, actually."
In one fourth-grade classroom, a converted storage space, students discussed on Wednesday morning norms for both usual and unusual school years: Be kind. Try your best. Be respectful — particularly when considering that some of their peers are now learning in tents without walls where noise travels easily.
Inside the school's makerspace, a massive warehouse with high ceilings and large doors that can roll up to increase air flow, a group of kindergarten students wore "first day on campus" paper hats as they drew and colored using pens in Ziploc bags designated for individual use.
Eagen said transparent, frequent communication with parents and staff was key to a successful reopening. Synapse hosted weekly Zoom town halls this summer, and he posted weekly video updates, plus a weekly newsletter. He met individually with each of the school's 60 staff members, either outside from a distance or on Zoom. The staff also met with the school's medical advisers, COVID-19 task force and board members.
A few non-teaching employees didn't feel comfortable returning to work in person, Eagen said, while some who did want to come back were asked to stay at home. Art and music specialists, for example, who normally rotate among classes are working from home for their safety and the students'.
Eagen estimated that Synapse will spend close to $2 million from the school's reserves on reopening, including facilities upgrades, testing and adding staff. He acknowledged that not all schools are able to reopen in the way that small, well-resourced schools can.
"Smaller schools are going to have an advantage. I do believe that," he said. "You can be nimble. You can make changes. You can just keep things small."
But there are less costly approaches that other schools can apply, he said, including better communication, forming partnerships and, practically, repurposing a campus' outdoor spaces.
"A big district can communicate transparently. They can reach out to experts, whether they're within their own community, the parent population, or the broader community. They can partner on best practices," Eagen said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.