Between Gateway, Twin Lakes and Baymonte Christian, there continue to be far more successes with in-person learning amid COVID-19 than horror stories — even if the new normal is far from normal.
Walking across the Gateway School’s nine-acre property in mid-November, Dr. Zachary Roberts felt a palpable sense of joy radiating from campus. Students, who had been learning remotely since March, were back at school, masked, socially distanced, and planting vegetables in the school’s 17,000 square-foot garden, as they usually did in the fall.
But the principal of the small, private institution on the Westside felt that the joy of being allowed to reopen for in-person learning was muddled with something else — anxiety.
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In September, when public schools struggled to invite students back to campus on a large scale, private schools like Gateway zoomed ahead, making necessary preparations to bring students safely back to campus. The semester looked a little different for those who returned. Students lined up each morning for temperature checks and verbal symptom screenings. They wore warm coats, knowing that for safety, they’d spend at least half of the school day outside.
They didn’t mix with kids outside of their classrooms, and during P.E., their coach, one of four teachers medically exempt from attending school in-person during the pandemic, was broadcast into the gym through a large screen. The children, meanwhile, exercised with masks on, within the boundaries of their own taped-off squares.
Now, with 2020 in the rear view, private school leaders like Roberts have invited students back to campus a second time. Gateway students will return on Jan. 19 and Baymonte Christian and Twin Lakes already have most students back on campus. But as the COVID-19 case rate in the county rises, so do anxieties about school-based transmission.
Administrators say a semester of trial-and-error has prepared them to meet the challenge ahead, and public school officials say the experiment has served a greater good with Gov. Gavin Newsom leaving the door open, and incentives, for a return to campus in March. It has allowed more teachers and families to envision what a safe return to campus might look like on the other side of a record-breaking wave of COVID-19.
According to Roberts, the school saw zero confirmed cases of coronavirus among its student population during the fall semester. And though a handful of teachers and administrators did test positive for the virus, early detection meant there were zero cases of transmission on campus, Roberts said.
Gateway’s success, alongside the success of other Santa Cruz schools that opened to in-person learning this fall, underscores the California Department of Public Health’s recent assertion that when safety and mitigation strategies are in effect, going to school is not associated with a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
According to Dr. Gail Newel, there was “no significant transmission” of COVID-19 in any of the school sites open to in-person learning. “Children, especially those under the age of 10, don’t have very many of the receptors that bind the virus,” she said. It’s much harder for them to get the virus and it’s much harder for them as a result to transmit the virus.”
Many lessons learned
Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, Santa Cruz schools — public, charters, and private — were allowed to reopen for in-person learning in mid-September, 14 days after the county moved from the purple tier, indicating widespread transmission of COVID-19, to the less-severe red tier.
In addition to remaining in the red tier for two weeks, schools hoping to reopen for in-person learning in the fall were required to implement regular surveillance testing for teachers and administrators, amounting to the testing of 25 percent of school staff every two weeks.
With guidance from the health department and the County Office of Education, schools also needed to demonstrate a safe environment, opting to upgrade air-filtration systems, install plexiglass, and implement distancing protocols.
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Throughout the summer and fall, private schools, typically independent from public oversight, worked in lockstep with the county to meet local and state requirements — and to plan for the eventuality of positive cases on campus.
Santa Cruz Superintendent Dr. Faris Sabbah and Director of School Safety Jennifer Buesing met weekly with private school administrators to communicate policy changes from the state and best practices from the county health department. “The private schools are doing a phenomenal job at navigating through all of the guidance,” Buesing said. “It’s been a great opportunity to take a lot of lessons from them.”
At Gateway, where the annual tuition of $26,000 per student funds 90 percent of the schools operating costs, Roberts and his staff upgraded filters in the school’s HVAC system, replaced all touch faucets with sensors or foot pedals, and added hand sanitizer dispensers to every classroom.
When students returned, they operated in stable cohorts. Each of the lower grades was designated its own bathroom, and middle-grade students alternated in-person learning and remote-learning days to minimize the number of students on campus.
“All of the mitigation measures do add up,” said Steve Patterson, principal of Baymonte Christian School in Scotts Valley, who took similar measures at his school. In older classrooms without standard heat and air systems, Patterson purchased stand-alone HEPA filtration units capable of changing out the air in the room three times per hour.
Patterson said that enrollment at Baymonte Christian is at capacity, and since the school reopened to in-person learning, waitlists have amassed at every grade level. “Parents want their kids back in school,” he said. “Kids need to be back in school.”
At Twin Lakes Christian in Aptos, 350 of the school’s 375 enrolled students and every teacher opted to return for in-person learning on Sept. 22, the first day county schools became eligible.
According to Principal Meg Imel, hallways were marked to direct the flow of traffic, and bathroom stalls and sinks were taped off so that students, learning in stable cohorts, would maintain distance.
Classrooms were regularly fumigated by “electrostatic misters,” ghostbuster-like packs that spray FDA-approved chemicals that neutralize the coronavirus.
“It has been a very expensive investment, but one that we felt was necessary,” Imel said.
Different holiday approaches
As the case rate in Santa Cruz rose steadily in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving break, so did concern among private school administrators.
Imel and Patterson strongly urged families traveling outside of the Bay Area for the holidays to attend school virtually for the 14 days after their return, or to get tested before coming back to school.
Imel said her staff considered temporarily returning the campus to virtual learning after Thanksgiving, but ultimately, Twin Lakes Christian decided to keep campus open after the holiday break, believing that working parents would be “severely impacted” if their children were kept at home.
“I feel like we’ll deal with the cases as they arise and quarantine when we need to, rather than quarantining the whole school on the assumption that people are not going to do their part,” she said in mid-November.
At Gateway, Roberts took precaution a step further. Assuming that families might travel for the holidays, and wary of the skyrocketing number of COVID-19 cases locally and statewide, he decided to return the campus to virtual learning for the two weeks after Thanksgiving and Christmas break, allowing traveling families time to quarantine. “We took a protective approach,” he said.
Parents had mixed feelings but ultimately came around to the plan, according to Liz Fritz, a business owner and parent of two Gateway students. The advanced notice allowed her and her peers to plan for child care. “We think it was a really smart decision,” she said.
Ultimately, Gateway’s protective approach worked. With no known cases among its student population, and early detection among the few cases in the school’s adult population, the school was able to keep every one of its classrooms open throughout the fall.
Twin Lakes Christian saw two students test positive between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to Imel, but the cases were unrelated, and one of the students quickly retested negative. There was no transmission of the virus on campus, she said.
At Baymonte Christian, several cases of coronavirus were detected among school first-graders cohort in late December. According to Patterson, one teacher and several students in a 36-person cohort tested positive. The teacher made a full recovery, and only one of the students who contracted the virus showed symptoms. Some family members were infected, but no one fell seriously ill, Patterson said.
The health department is still undergoing contact tracing to determine whether the cases at Baymonte Christian will be classified as a school-based transmission, according to Buesing, who serves as a liaison between the County Office of Education and the health department. “It is quite likely that those other students got it from somewhere else.”
“Nobody was pointing fingers. We all knew the risks going into this,” said Patterson of the positive cases. For him, the takeaways going into the new year were clear: “Respond to it quickly, engage county public health, shut down that grade-level cohort, and the rest of the students go on.”
So what’s the verdict?
Buesing and Newel’s assessment: Thus far, in-person learning has not been associated with widespread viral transmission. Private schools, including Baymonte Christian, have done a “great job” quickly isolating and quarantining suspected cases, Buesing said.
“The small schools are showing that in-person instruction can be done safely,” said Buesing, referring to private schools. Just 600 of Santa Cruz County’s public-school students were receiving in-person instruction ahead of winter break, but several districts planning to expand these cohorts in the new year are looking to private schools as an example.
Still, Buesing cautions that the return to in-person instruction is anything but a return to normalcy. It requires flexibility, creativity and the willingness to pivot from day-to-day. Sometimes, she said, positive test results come back in the evening, or on weekends. “There’s often a quick pivot to distanced learning, sometime just the night before,” she said.
Countywide, coronavirus cases have quadrupled since September, when schools first began to reopen their campuses. Still, private schools are forging on with in-person learning. After a week of voluntarily quarantining, a majority of Baymonte and Twin Lakes Christian students are now back on campus.
Gateway students will return on Jan. 19, and again, Principal Roberts is feeling the familiar tinge of anxiety. On one hand, the safety protocols he developed over the summer and implemented during the fall were largely successful. Students and staff wore face coverings and remained physically distanced, and for more than half the school day, class was held outside.
None of that will change as students return for the spring semester, he said, adding that he’s hoping to increase the frequency of staff testing.
“I am less anxious because we’ve done so much work developing, implementing, structuring and training on our health and safety protocols,” said Roberts. The anxiety comes from the fact that “we are in this tremendous surge.”
He says he’s prepared for the eventuality of COVID-19 making its way to the school. “The time will come when there is an instance of transmission on campus,” he said. “I don’t think we would expect to have none. That would be unrealistic.”
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