Sonoma County private schools look for opportunities to bring students back to campus
Brothers Maddox and Xander Halim have had a smoother time than many students with distance learning, with a stay-at home mom to set them up each morning and a working father to support their ongoing private education.
Still, the days come when Maddox will ask his parents: will I ever see my friends again?
“As I talk to other parents in our social group, it’s a pretty shared experience,” said their father, Khalid Halim. “That lack of ability to provide some sort of predictability to your kids about what tomorrow is going to be like.”
Their school, Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm, is trying to remove some of that uncertainty and bring the Halim boys and many of their classmates back together again. It is one of the first schools in Sonoma County to move toward reopening its grounds to some of its students, using health procotols approved earlier this summer for day camps.
Unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke in the air forced the school to repeatedly cancel its plans to welcome its youngest students back to the campus west of Santa Rosa after Labor Day, placing small groups in outdoor classrooms to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. It now hopes to resume some classroom activities this week, perhaps as soon as Tuesday.
“We’re sort of in flux,” said Jason Gross, instructor and member of the school’s governing council. “And we’re just working on being good at adapting as fast as possible.”
Leaders at other private and public schools are still determining their readiness to reopen classrooms safely and within the constraints of state rules regarding group sizes and social distancing.
Summerfield, which sits on 35 acres of land north of Sebastopol, offered plenty of space to set up outdoor classrooms. Under the expanses of tent roofs, air circulates freely and students will be seated at least six feet apart.
Khalid Halim said he and his wife Torey volunteered to help set up the classrooms a few weeks ago to see for themselves what the setup would look like.
“We are 100% comfortable and plan to participate,” he said.
Summerfield is staking its ability to bring back all of its students in first through fourth grade — about a quarter of its total student population — on a piece of guidance issued by the California Department of Public Health on Sept. 4.
The guidance lays out parameters for “necessary in-person child supervision and limited instruction, targeted support services, and facilitation of distance learning in small group environments for a specified subset of children and youth.”
A supplemental FAQ document clarified that schools should prioritize students with disabilities, students learning English, students in foster care or who are homeless, and any students “at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning.”
It’s that last category in which Gross said his school considers its youngest learners to fall. Because Waldorf curriculum discourages use of screens in conveying lessons and doing homework, teachers in the early education grades have been especially reliant on analog materials: textbooks, art projects that families can pick up at their school or materials parents can print at home, Gross said. Short check-ins over video calls, a chance to see classmates, are the norm, rather than extended instructional periods.
“We and our families want as little screen time as possible for those younger grades, so we consider that a vulnerable group,” Gross said.
It’s not immediately clear how many other local schools, private or public, have started to bring any students back to the classroom. While schools seeking to reopen must comply with public health guidelines, they are not required to secure advance approval from the Sonoma County Office of Education or the Sonoma County Health Services Department.
Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, said close communication between her department and the county education office should help enable schools to follow the rules exactly — though that also depends on schools being in communication with the county departments.
“When we do hear about these kinds of activities, we’re able to provide guidance,” she said.
Steve Herrington, county schools superintendent, has also been “very open to having discussions with a school recommending best practices and mitigation factors,” she said.
Among the rules that schools have to follow: they must keep students in cohorts of no more than 14, and must keep groups from mixing. The total number of students they bring back, according to the state rules, “should generally not exceed 25% of the school’s enrollment size.”