As leaders at local public schools strategize on how to safely reopen campuses to in-person learning, private schools on the Coastside have been operational for weeks — and they might provide some insight into the future of schooling.

Sea Crest School, a private school in Half Moon Bay serving kids from transitional kindergarten to eighth grade, has been open for nine weeks and hasn’t reported a COVID-19 case since reopening. Head of School Lauren Miller said that success has been due to copious staff and community planning, adaptation and weekly check-ins to make campus a safe and successful learning environment for students.

Miller said Cabrillo Unified School District leaders are coming this week to learn about Sea Crest’s operations to prepare them for their planned mid-January phased opening. The key advice she will give any school looking to reopen is to take a phased approach. For the past nine weeks, Sea Crest has been welcoming a new grade per week to get them used to the new protocols and to give staff time to adjust to any changes. On Tuesday, the school reopened to eighth-graders for the first time.

“It’s like having 10 first days of school,” Miller said.

Her other piece of advice is to maintain one day when no students are on campus to regroup and make any necessary changes, and to avoid staff burnout. Plus, Miller said, schools shouldn’t worry so much about mask wearing and teaching kids new routines — they get used to it quickly.

Student temperature checks
Ambar Pina administers a temperature check to a student arriving at Sea Crest school on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Photo by Adam Pardee

When students arrive at Sea Crest’s campus every day, they are immediately asked health screening questions, get their temperatures taken, and are directed to wash their hands at outdoor touchless sinks before heading to class. Every student wears a mask all day long, and social distancing is required, with spaced desks and tape markers to help. Miller said every day, a few kids are turned away for something as simple as a light cold, stomachache or recent travel.

“There is no wiggle room at all,” Miller said. “We really consider the parking lot our first line of defense.”

Every classroom on campus has open windows, air filters and an exterior door. The cafeteria is located outside in the “parking lot café,” and students stay in their cohorts all day — even during recess. Younger kids who normally wouldn’t be learning at desks now have their own individual space, and technology has been set up to accommodate everyone.

The biggest challenge, Miller said, has been for teachers, who are learning how to toggle between the two learning groups.

“I have two different teaching roles now and I want to be sure to provide an equitable learning experience to everyone,” said teacher Zoe Beattie, who has six distance learners in her kindergarten class.

Teachers at Wilkinson School, which has also been phasing in in-person outdoor learning, are facing a different challenge. Most of their students are back in person, but all their classes are being held outdoors. For teachers, that means redesigning their lessons to work in new and changing conditions — particularly amid recent poor air quality and heavy wind.

“I now know that garbage day is Monday, Tuesday is street sweeping and Wednesday is the tsunami warning,” said kindergarten and first-grade teacher Katie Marquis.

Marquis said she uses props like clipboards, sidewalk chalk and hula hoops to aid learning, and encourages students to get inspired by their surroundings. Her advice to other teachers is to designate a space for kids where they can safely take off their masks when they do need a break.

All of the teachers and school leaders said they were pleasantly surprised with how quickly the students have adapted, and that teaching new safety protocols, or “weird rules,” as Marquis calls them, comes as naturally as any other classroom rule. At Wilkinson, Learning Specialist Kristin Simons said they’ve been tracking compliance with the rules, which helps with transparency and communication.

And though the logistics have been tough to implement, they agreed that being back is worth it.

“Take it slow, but keep going,” Miller said.

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