Dan Deguara

Dan Deguara

The decision disallowing most county students from returning to campus granted some peace of mind to wary educators who opposed going back to their classroom amid a pandemic.

Many school districts across the Peninsula planned to start the fall semester in a hybrid model, which would have featured some students and teachers in the classroom with other lessons occurring online.

But with San Mateo County likely headed to the COVID-19 watchlist, middle and high schools are required to start the year entirely online and elementary schools can only bring students back to campus with an approved waiver.

Jennifer Frey, a middle school teacher in the Belmont-Redwood Shores Elementary School District, said the county’s placement on a monitoring list Wednesday, July 29, came as a blessing in disguise.

Days prior, the district Board of Trustees had approved a plan to start the school year with some students in classroom — a decision which many teachers and parents ardently opposed.

“We all came out against it,” said Frey, noting the effort by some in the school community to dissuade officials from requiring teachers and students to go back to campus.

But with the county intervening, Superintendent Dan Deguara said officials were required to reverse course and start the semester online, with plans to reconsider the next steps in a few weeks.

“We expect to re-evaluate offering a hybrid option within 5-6 weeks of the start of school. We will monitor the situation and will continue to keep our teachers, staff and community informed,” he said in a prepared statement.

Looking ahead, Frey said she maintains concerns regarding the district’s protocol to assure teachers and students are kept safe once campuses reopen. More comprehensive policies around testing, contact tracing and assurances of supplied personal protective equipment are necessary, she said.

Craig Childress, president of the San Mateo Union High School District Teachers Association, shared safety concerns as well during the system’s board meeting Wednesday, July 29.

“It is simply not safe to return to school as we know it, and it likely will not be safe to do so any time in the near future,” he said.

Among other issues, Childress said until comprehensive testing is available for the school community and contract tracing plans are established, online learning is the only acceptable option.

The perspective is consistent with representatives from the California Teachers Association, which has pushed hard for ramped up health and safety protocol before teachers and students go back to school.

Looking ahead, both Childress and Frey called for greater guidance regarding the specific metrics which will assure a school community is safe to begin in-person sessions.

County Superintendent Nancy Magee said county health officials have worked hard to establish standards and guidelines which would help specific districts determine a plan for their district.

But she noted the variability of conditions and demographics across San Mateo County, it is challenging for regional officials to establish a metric system that is universally applicable.

“It’s really difficult to set data that applies equally to all communities,” she said.

In the absence of such firm mandates, Magee said she believed starting small and building gradually on successful models will evolve to a system which balances public health and effective education.

Magee nodded to The Big Lift, an early education program sponsored by the county Office of Education, as a local model in which students in small groups adhered to safety standards while enjoying social and educational enrichment over the summer.

As more examples occur locally, Magee said confidence will grow among the school community that an eventual return to campus is possible.

“Once people start to see ‘oh, we can do this and it is working,’ that trust will build,” she said.

She also added that a healthy dose of optimism could be helpful as the school community tries to move ahead through a uniquely challenging stretch.

“Everyone just needs to try to be patient and hopeful,” she said.

Frey, who balances caring for an aging mother with being an educator, has an even more simple wish for the eventual return to campus.

“We just want it to be safe,” she said.

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