UPDATE: The school board voted 4-1 on Jan. 21 to reopen schools for a small group of transitional kindergarten and special-needs students as soon as Monday, Jan. 25. Trustee Ana Maria Pulido voted against the motion because she said she wants the district to bring more students back than is planned.
The Ravenswood City School District is looking to start reopening its campuses as soon as next week for small groups of high-need students, which school leaders hope will be an initial step toward safely resuming more in-person instruction.
Ravenswood submitted a waiver application to San Mateo County Health on Jan. 14 to bring back an estimated 42 students, including a transitional kindergarten class at Costaño Elementary School and 31 students with moderate to severe special needs, from preschool to fifth grade. But the district doesn't need a waiver to reopen for select groups of "urgent learners," the county recently told Superintendent Gina Sudaria, and can proceed following existing state and local public health guidance pending direction from the school board, she said Tuesday.
Trustees supported staff's recommendation, presented at a study session last week, to start reopening schools for students "whose education has been massively disrupted" by months of remote learning, Sudaria said.
"We need to reimagine what is possible ... to make up for the disruptions of COVID," she told the board on Jan. 12. "This is just not about a few weeks of summer school. This is a long-term plan, a multiyear process that we need to start acting upon now."
The district is purposefully starting small with willing families and teachers to demonstrate that in-person learning can be done safely, which will hopefully encourage more teachers and families to come back, Sudaria said.
The district hopes to bring the first groups of students back as soon as Monday, Jan. 25. The 11 transitional kindergarten students (the parents of nearly all want their children to return to classroom instruction, Sudaria said) would attend school every day in the mornings with one teacher. In the afternoon, the class would remain in a stable cohort and attend a district learning hub together, which opened in September to provide support — but not direct instruction — to students. About 200 students are currently attending the learning hubs, which are held on Ravenswood campuses but managed by local nonprofits.
The special needs students, some of whom are nonverbal or have other severe disabilities, would return in a slower, phased approach: attending school 30 to 60 minutes per day as they adjust to being back in the classroom with health and safety precautions. The district is currently conducting one-on-one special education assessments in-person in the same time frame, so it will be familiar to students, Sudaria said, but over time, the district would gradually increase the amount of time and number of students together based on student needs and ability. Students would be in classes of no more than nine students with a teacher and up to three paraprofessionals.
Only staff who volunteer to teach in person will do so. Ten teachers and eight paraeduators have said they're willing to come back for this initial phase of reopening, according to the district.
Ravenswood has invested in safety precautions to prepare for reopening, including purchasing 100 portable HEPA air purifiers, handwashing stations, high-quality misters that use commercial-grade germicide and enough masks for every student and staff member to have multiple masks.
Sudaria said the district is eager to reopen for more students at more schools if all goes well — and the district feels a sense of urgency to do so even in the face of concerning COVID-19 case counts in East Palo Alto. She said a few other East Palo Alto schools are offering in-person learning, including charter schools.
"We are trying to strategically walk the line on how to pull the entire community forward and be in support of bringing students on campus," she said.
When San Mateo County has been in the less-restrictive red tier for two consecutive weeks, the district would start a slow, staggered return of more transitional kindergarten and first grade students, newcomer students and students with special needs; by the orange tier, the district would accelerate the pace of reopening for these same groups of students. All families have the option to stay with distance learning.
Trustee Bronwyn Alexander supported the plan but expressed some reservations about reopening schools while San Mateo County remains in the purple tier.
"I just want to voice the concern: It's still a very deadly, dangerous disease and it's still very rampant in our community," Alexander said.
Vice President Tamara Sobomehin urged the district to not lessen its focus on improving the distance learning experience when schools reopen.
Trustee Ana Maria Pulido, meanwhile, advocated for returning even more students to campuses, especially with the likelihood of teachers getting access to the vaccine on the horizon. She noted that other local elementary schools have remained open for in-person instruction despite the county moving into the purple tier.
"I'm devastated to think our students will potentially (go) an entire year without being back on our campuses, connecting with teachers and learning in the classroom," she said. "I hear a lot of frustration and stress from families for whom this has become very burdensome."
As Ravenswood moves closer to reopening schools, the district is ramping up COVID-19 testing availability for students and employees. Starting in January, the district is requiring all staff coming onto campuses to be tested weekly. By February, the district hopes to offer free testing to all Ravenswood students, whether they're on campus for a learning hub or direct instruction.
The district is also participating in an eight-week rapid test pilot program through San Mateo County Health. The rapid antigen testing — with results that come back in 15 minutes — will be first made available to staff, then students, Sudaria said.
The school board will discuss the waiver and reopening plan again at its virtual meeting this Thursday, Jan. 21. The open session starts around 7:15 p.m. View the agenda here.
In other business at the board's Jan. 12 study session, trustees unanimously supported a $50 million renovation plan to build two new buildings at the Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School — the single largest new capital project in Ravenswood's history. The district plans to build one larger two-story building with seven classrooms and a media center, while a second, one-story building will house four new classrooms and offices for students to meet in small groups with district support staff. All remaining classrooms at the middle school, which opened in 2017, will also be renovated.
The upgrades will be funded through Measure S, a school bond that voters approved in 2018. Construction is set to begin this summer and be completed by 2024.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.