"Keep one horse length apart" read signs at Ormondale Elementary School, as first graders trickled into classrooms Monday, Oct. 12.
The nod to the school mascot, the horse, is one way the school is personalizing social distancing during a pandemic that's kept students out of classrooms for seven months. Students and teachers are required to wear masks, with some donning face shields attached to headbands with cat ears, mouse ears and crowns. Horseshoes painted on the ground indicate how to keep 6 feet from others.
The reopening has gone smoothly, said Principal Lynette Hovland on day two of in-person instruction, despite some of the anxious feelings she had. It is challenging to observe students, who might ordinarily seek out the familiar face of their former kindergarten teacher and ask for a hug, need to stay at a distance, she said.
"I want them to understand we can see their smiles in their eyes," said Hovland, who began working on a reopening plan in May. "We're a school that embraces kindness, and having to see them be far apart is kind of difficult. They're doing a great job and being really respectful of one another."
The Portola Valley School District, which serves about 500 students across Ormondale (transitional kindergarten to third grade) and Corte Madera (grades 4-8) schools, is taking a phased approach for returning students to classrooms.
When San Mateo County granted the district the waiver to resume in-person instruction on Oct. 8, the district joined three other public school districts — there are 23 total in the county — that have gotten the go-ahead to reopen. The neighboring Menlo Park City and Las Lomitas school districts, along with the Hillsborough City School District, also received reopening waivers, according to San Mateo County Office of Education spokesperson Patricia Love.
Las Lomitas district kindergartners will return to classrooms Oct. 19, with older grades phasing back into classrooms the following weeks, said Las Lomitas district Superintendent Beth Polito. Middle school students in the Portola Valley and Las Lomitas districts will continue with distance learning indefinitely, according to the districts.
The county moved out of the most restrictive purple or "widespread" risk tier to the red or "substantial" tier on Sept. 22. Since the county has stayed in the red tier for three weeks as of Oct. 13, all TK-12 schools in San Mateo County are allowed to reopen, so long as they develop a reopening plan, have a testing plan in place for staff, and use an incremental approach to reopening, according to the San Mateo County Office of Education website.
The Portola Valley district is following a hybrid learning model. This means students will do some learning in person and some at home.
The 38 first graders who have returned to the Shawnee Pass Drive campus are divided among three classes. They will be joined by kindergartners and transitional kindergartners next week. Second and fourth graders will begin on-campus instruction on Nov. 2. Third and fifth graders will follow on Nov. 9.
Kimber Trefero's first grade students sit at tables separated by clear partitions. Trefero, who is in her sixth year teaching at Ormondale and 17th year teaching, said she is happy to see the students in person.
"I'm just hoping we stay open," she said, referencing other schools across the country that have shut down following reopenings because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
The teachers union, Portola Valley Teachers Association (PVTA), initially submitted a letter to the board July 25 which strongly expressed that it did not want teachers and students to return to campus during the pandemic. But two weeks later, the district and teachers union reached an agreement on distance and in-person learning during the pandemic, with terms that include giving teachers at least a 48-hour notice to transition to in-person learning, according to an Aug. 10 joint statement. PVTA president John Davenport declined to comment on the reopening.
From 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., first graders eat snacks outside and the gardening teacher conducts lessons over Zoom while students use the on-campus greenhouse. Instruction also takes place in classrooms. The district purchased lap desks and buckets to use as seats for outdoor learning, Hovland said. They resume online instruction at home at 12:30 p.m.
Connor, a first grader, said he was "bummed" he didn't see his friends in person during full-time distance learning and is happy to see them again.
"Kids are a lot more resilient than adults are," Hovland said while watching the students play during recess. "They're just happy to be here."